Sand mines grating to cyclists
Truck traffic, dust and a marred landscape raise concerns
The rapid proliferation of sand mining operations in western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota have recreationalists worried. Bicycling events set in the rolling countryside are increasingly popular, but participants may be turned off by the sand mines marring the landscape.
Event organizer and retired University of Wisconsin-Stout Vice Chancellor David Williams, shared his concerns about the increasing amount of sand mining in the Menominee, Wisconsin, area. "We work to encourage bike tourism in Menominee. Now there is proposed sand mine on our bike race course at Knapp Hills" to the northwest of Menomonie,
"This whole thing needs to slow down," Williams continued. "We need to know the environmental and tourism impacts before we get too far down this path. A couple years ago there was virtually no sand mining in the area, and now there are several big mines with more being planned."
According to Williams, some bike courses are being re-routed due to road damage caused by heavy traffic to and from mining sites.
Wisconsin and Minnesota supply the majority of fracking sand in North American. Hydrolic fracking, the process of fracturing rock to extract oil and gas from shale, requires high quality sand that is nearly pure quartz to stabilize the cracks. The sand is harvested here, chemically treated, then shipped by truck and rail to various oil fields in Texas, North Dakota and Canada. U.S. sand producers expect to sell over 15 million metric tons of fracking sand this year.
All that movement of sand concerns local road bikers like Pete May, former owner of Bad Cat Bicycles in Menominee. "This is a very emotional and frustrating topic for us," he said. "Besides being exposed to hazardous materials, huge trucks are damaging our roads. In the last two years, I have had to alter my work commute to avoid County Highways A and DD and 186th Street because of truck traffic. These dump trucks are traveling about 60 to 90 seconds apart up to 24 hours a day."
May added, "Frac sand mining has made me wonder how idyllic our lifestyle is in the cycling mecca of western Wisconsin."
In 2007, opponents blocked a potential mine adjacent to the Hoffman Hills State Recreation Area through a grassroots effort organized by local farmers, residents and recreationalists. The Hoffman Hills effort started with a few flyers being distributed locally and evolved into an organized campaign. At scores of public meetings, residents voiced their concerns about silica air pollution and other issues. Now another battle is brewing to keep the Knapp Hills, a popular area for road biking, mine free.
The Nature Valley Gran Prix professional bike race and its sister race the Grand Fondo, use the Knapp Hills as part of its race course.
"The mines are contrary to smart growth planning that has been done in these communities," Menominee economist and author Jim Eggert said. "People move to this area for several reasons, including the scenic beauty and lack of development."
Eggert estimates truck traffic to a nearby mine is 1,100 trips daily. "The truck traffic from mining operations is also a big problem," he said.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a ruling last February in favor of the Town of Cooks Valley where landowners had challenged local zoning rules, claiming the ordinances weren't approved by the Chippewa County Board. The court upheld the town right's to use existing ordinances and zoning to regulate mining.
Opponents suspect many of the new mines are intentionally concentrated in unzoned townships where mine operators work freely with private landowners, bypassing permitting processes.
Environmental & health concerns
Because of this, several sand mine opposition groups have sprung up, such as Save Our Hills Alliance, Fight Against Fracking and Hay River Frac Watch. Dunn County Sand (sites.google.com/site/dunncountysand/home) is a nonpartisan site that tracks local sand mining issues.
"This is an unregulated industry that is moving forward at an explosive rate," according to Jim Burritt, a microbiologist who lives near Menomonie. He said he fears the current rate of development is a threat to water and air resources as well as recreation.
"Not only is there risk to the environment, but also to people's health," Burritt told Silent Sports.
The potential impact on water resources have local paddlers worried. Five planned sand mines in northwest Wisconsin will use super wells to pump 420,500 to two million gallons per day, according to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources report. Concerns about aquifer depletion and effects on navigable streams tend to rile local residents.
Concerns about sand mining include noise impacts, the controversial fracking process which can use toxic chemicals, and the regulation of silica itself.
Crystalline silica is a key component of frac sand. Silica dust is a well-documented health risk associated with pulmonary tuberculosis, airways diseases, silicosis, and auto-immune disorders. It is a potential carcinogen according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While silica is regulated within sand mines, it is not regulated outside the mine. Mine operators are required to follow and maintain a fugitive dust program. Many operators berm their mines and plant vegetation to prevent stray particulate matter. Yet fine particles from mines and trucking operations blow onto neighboring properties where they can be inhaled in tiny concentrations. The DNR recently agreed to studying silica toxicity and announce its findings in early 2013.
Local cyclists are irritated about their exposure to frac sand, according to Pete May. "I'm concerned about frac particles in the air. Sand is blown off trucks and around the mines," he said. "I do not want to be exposed to something that can give me cancer in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Sounds ironic, doesn't it?"
Altering the landscape
Sand mining requires taking down large hills or mounds of sand, because much of the sand formation occurs above ground. The process starts with the removal of overburden, including top soil, clay and rock. This overburden is typically bermed around the mine site as a barrier.
In many situations, blasting is used to free the sand from fortified deposits. Blasting can occur almost daily or monthly depending upon the type of deposit. The sand is excavated using large tracked equipment and rubber tired loaders to gather and stockpile the sand. Many plants employ a crushing unit for hard-packed sand. The sand can be moved to a washing facility on site, relocated to a processing plant, or transported by rail to its final destination.
Transportation of the sand involves significant use of town and county roads, causing residents to complain about the volume of truck traffic in the neighborhoods located near sand mines.
Not everyone is opposed to sand mining. The operations do create jobs. EOG Resources, a Fortune 500 company, has operated a Chippewa County mine since 2008, bringing over 100 direct and indirect jobs to the area. EOG is developing a second large mine which they claim will add $60 million to the tax base and have even larger economic impacts for the area.
Currently, there are 38 operational and proposed mines in Barron, Chippewa and Dunn counties and several operating or proposed sand processing plants. The largest mines range from 1,000 acres to over 2,000 acres. The sand rush is unlikely to end soon due to high oil prices and a plentiful local sand supply which makes fracking profitable.
Mike McFadzen enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, paddle sports, biking and running when his day job doesn't interfere. He serves on the Wisconsin State Trails Council, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks and the Sheboygan Nonmotorized Pilot Program. He lives in Greenbush, Wisconsin, with his wife, Karen, and dog, Woody.
A related story by Mike McFadzen, headlined "Large open-pit iron mine not dead yet" in northern Wisconsin, appears in the May 2012 issue of Silent Sports. Don't miss an issue. Subscribe online here.