You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Scott Walker's Sand Grab: Wisconsin Wants a Piece of the Fracking Boom, No Matter Who Gets Hurt


On the night that he was elected governor of Wisconsin in 2010, a beaming Scott Walker told the hundreds of supporters sandwiched into Waukesha’s little Country Springs Hotel ballroom that his state was “open for business.” It was shorthand for his promise to slash taxes and lay waste to state regulations, all to create a quarter of a million new jobs by the end of his fourth year in office. But halfway through Walker’s term, Wisconsin had added only a quarter of the promised jobs, it ranked 44th in private-sector job creation, and private-sector wages were falling at twice the average rate nationally. A non-partisan audit of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., a job-creation agency Walker started, found it repeatedly broke state laws in its first year. Still, among the detritus of the Republican governor’s job creation efforts, one sector of Wisconsin’s economy has been roaring: the sand-mining industry.

The hydraulic fracturing boom that has transformed the plains of North Dakota into an industrial mecca observable from space is fueled by tiny grains of silica sand from southwestern Wisconsin’s hillsides. In fracking, “frac sand” is used to prop open fissures in the earth, creating an escape route for natural gas. A single well can require 2,000 tons of sand over its lifetime. As fracking sites have proliferated across the nation, silica sand mines and processing facilities have too, with Wisconsin far and away the leading provider of frac sand. Just five years ago, there were fewer than 10 sites in the state; today, the state has greenlit a little more than 100, most of which are operational. Rich Budinger, the president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, estimates that the industry has brought 2,000 jobs to the state so far.

Republicans, who control the state Senate and House, want the boom to be even bigger. Their 2013 budget set aside $6.4 billion for freight rail and roadway improvements, which Walker said would allow companies to export frac sand in even greater quantities. At an event in Sparta, a small city in west-central Wisconsin, he said that improving rail transport makes the shipping of frac sand “a lot more environmentally sound … because you can connect it right there and not put as much burden on county and town roads and things of that nature.”

Piles of frac sand at the end of a conveyor at a new Wisconsin mine.

But public health advocates aren’t so sure about that, worrying instead that the frac sand boom will have broad, lasting environmental consequences for Wisconsin. There is accumulating evidence that mine emissions, when poorly regulated, can be toxic to those who live and work nearby. Frac sand facilities have the potential to ruin groundwater reserves. And local leaders have limited options for regulating the new facilities that are popping up like mushrooms—often because there’s always a town nearby looking to make a buck.

Yet the way things stand, with new facilities opening at breakneck speed, any new regulations await conclusive research on the health and environmental effects. And state environmental regulators have neither the time nor resources to ensure compliance with existing law. “It’s certainly hard to wrap your head around the effects,” said Deb Dix, a spokesperson for the frac sand regulation division of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “The industry, it’s just so large, so quickly. We’re trying to get all the answers, but it’s just not happening quickly enough.” When those answers finally arrive, will they be too late?

The hilly, wooded area of southwestern Wisconsin where frac sand mining has exploded goes by the romantic name of the Driftless Area, so called because it was bypassed by the glaciers that ironed flat the rest of the Midwest during the last Ice Age. “It is the most beautiful part of the state,” said Kevin Lien, the director of the Trempealeau County Department of Land Management. It is also, thanks to its unique geology, the best source in the nation for diamond-strong kernels of silica sand: smooth, round grains of almost pure quartz that can be found in lower Wisconsin’s sandstone bluffs.

The rapid industrialization of this corner of rural Wisconsin has sparked inevitable NIMBY clashes between miners and the farmers, retirees, and nth-generation locals who fret about unsightly dig sites and truck traffic. In Trempealeau County, home to a quarter of all new frac sand sites in the state, residents overwhelmed state Senator Kathleen Vinehout’s inbox with exactly those complaints. “It was clanging railroad cars at night, underground blasting that put cracks in the walls of peoples’ kitchens,” she said. “I had emails that said, ‘I don’t know what they’re doing, but there’s sand all over the inside of my house.’”

Yet it’s what Wisconsinites can’t see that scares public health advocates. Blasting, digging, crushing, drying, sorting, and transporting silica sand can cause microscopic flecks of crystalline silica—particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, or PM2.5, which is about one-twentieth the width of a strand of human hair—to become airborne and, when inhaled by humans, they can become lodged in the deep tissue of the lungs. These particles are associated with an increased risk of a battery of illnesses that Crispin Pierce, a professor of environmental public health at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, ticked off for me: “Silicosis, bronchitis, tuberculosis, chronic pulmonary diseases—it’s a really nasty, toxic substance.” But it's disputed whether frac sand mining produces these particles in dangerous quantities, and whether the particles pose a threat outside of confined spaces.1 The industry refrain is that it has silica emissions under control—but that they don’t pose a risk to non-workers anyway. “There is no community health issue,” said Marty Lehman, the chair of the board of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association. “There has never been a non-occupational issue of an adverse health effect [from silica exposure] reported in the U.S.” Health watchdogs, meanwhile, point out that the Occupational and Safety Hazard Administration has already warned the fracking industry of the dangers associated with using silica frac sand. A report published this year by the state Environmental Quality Board in Minnesota—where a nascent frac sand mining business is also taking root—concluded: “More study is needed, but there is evidence of potential health risks in areas of elevated silica concentration.”

Associated Press
A close-up of frac sand, the individual grains of which are very hard, round, and chemically inert.

What distance from frac sand operations is considered safe? Lien’s not sure. “Right now, I cannot tell you if you’re safe living one hundred feet from a mine or line of transport, or safe living ten thousand feet from a mine,” he said. “And I can’t tell you you’re not in harm’s way, because we don’t entirely know.” The DNR enforces an annual, regional cap set by the Environmental Protection Agency on the amount of PM2.5 that can enter the atmosphere—12 micrograms per cubic meter. But Pierce fears that in enforcing this cap, the DNR is under-measuring particulate matter. The DNR relies on stationary equipment that may be miles from the nearest mine; Eau Claire’s regional air quality monitor is 14 miles from the nearest major frac sand operation. Pierce, who leads a loose group of researchers trying to determine the exact health risks posed by the industry, has captured his own samples much nearer to the mines—sometimes across the street, sometimes a quarter of a mile away. With the caveat that he can only take “snapshots” of air quality—not long exposure readings—and uses portable detectors rather than the prohibitively expensive, stationary ones certified for EPA enforcement, he says he found emissions far above the EPA’s annual limit. Recently, a sample he took at a Chippewa Falls processing plant owned by EOG Resources registered 41 micrograms. “We have measured increases along train routes, at processing plants, near mines,” he said, “and every time we’ve taken samples, our levels are higher than DNR’s levels—except for areas where there is no sand plant.”

Air quality permit reviews undertaken by the nonprofit Midwest Environmental Advocates have found that the DNR is commonly issuing permits that treat frac sand sites as smaller emissions sources than they are in reality—placing them in a category that doesn’t require mine operators to police their own emissions, and where they receive less state scrutiny. In some cases, the DNR is setting emissions targets for frac sand facilities that don’t take into account the emissions already being generated by a nearby, existing mine. “You look at some of these, and there is no way they can meet their emissions goals,” said Sarah Williams, an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates. “And the DNR doesn’t intend to monitor them to see if they do.”

The DNR disputes criticisms that their regulatory oversight is lax. Dix pointed out that a new mine triggers a whole raft of regulations. “We deal with stormwater permits, waste water issues, wetland regulation permits, shoreline zoning issues. There’s a point of too much regulation,” she said. “You can say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be out there at every site once a week?’ It might be nice, but it might be seen as over-regulation.”

An aerial view of a northwestern Wisconsin frac sand mining operation.

In response, environmentalists have accused Walker of stacking the DNR with leaders who refuse to reprimand lawbreakers. (When Walker named his first DNR executive, a former legislator who had been a loud critic of environmental regulation, one Democratic state senator said it was “like putting Lindsay Lohan in charge of a rehab center.” Walker’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.) Two former DNR heads, appointed by Democrats, have called the situation under current leadership “unprecedented” and “indefensible.” Lien, the land management director, said the environmental protection unit of the Wisconsin Department of Justice to which the DNR frequently refers cases has been incredibly slow to prosecute offenders. DNR reprimands are delayed and the equivalent of “a rap on the fingers,” said Lien. “But If you shot a deer out of season, I can guarantee [the DNR’s] wrath would rain down on you.” Meanwhile, the land use committee in Lien’s department “has adopted the Scott Walker mentality,” he said. “It has warped into an economic growth and development committee.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the Wisconsin legislature has been loathe to scrutinize the frac sand industry. In 2012, Democratic state Senator Jennifer Shilling requested that the Republican-controlled Joint Legislative Council, which can authorize research committees, put together a committee to hear testimony and assemble a report on frac sand mining issues. Her request went nowhere. “Nothing happens in this state without the approval and the support of Republican leadership,” she said.2 And those Republicans have campaign donations to consider. A study compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found that in the past five years, Republican candidates for state office received more than $710,000 from frac sand interests—15 times what Democrats took in. Walker’s share of that money, in 2010 and in his 2012 recall election, was more than half a million.

In the tiny township of Arcadia, where activist Paul Winey lives, there are 12 permitted mines, eight of which are within a five-mile radius of one another. “Neither the town, the county, or the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources seems be concerned about what the cumulative effect of putting these operations side by side is going to be,” Winey said. Thanks in part to his agitation, the latest mine to be permitted in Arcadia, for a company called FTS International, is now the subject of a legal challenge by Midwest Environmental Advocates. They argue that the DNR has capped emissions at a level that FTSI is clearly not going to achieve—and that the DNR is not going to monitor—based on the pollution controls the plant proposes to use.3

But Williams, the MEA lawyer, says it’s not feasible for her non-profit to investigate every instance where the DNR might have been trigger-happy with its permits. In fact, the reason why advocates are so focused on reshaping the state’s regulations is that there is very little to stop a company from building a mine once it decides to—not the DNR, and not local officials who often want their town to get a piece of the mining boom. “When they came here, the bars, the restaurants, [they were filled] with the people this industry brings,” said Gary Peterson, the village president when an existing mine in his village, Maiden Rock, doubled in size.

Associated Press
Frac sand destined for the oil and gas fields piles up at the EOG Resources Inc. processing plant in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

The Driftless Area also has a frontier-like fondness for self-determination that has caused many towns to forsake any zoning laws—without which, said Dan Masterpole, the land conservationist  for Chippewa County, “You have a difficult time saying, ‘We’re not ever going to have any frac sand mining.’ A court would throw that right out.” As of summer 2012, a third of all mines permitted in the state were located in zoning-free townships, where companies can locate their mines wherever they’re able to buy land—and by offering landowners tens of thousands of dollars per acre plus six-figure royalties, companies are finding plenty of takers. Sometimes these mines are located miles from the nearest house, but sometimes they’re mere feet from an adjacent property. “This industry draws clear lines between neighbors,” Lien said. “In some cases, it’s pitting neighbor against neighbor.”

Township officials are getting more sophisticated at cutting deals with mining companies that safeguard their citizens—particularly after word got out that the town of Howard exacted a remarkable agreement from EOG Resources in 2011 to become liable for lost property value and road repairs. But the fact remains that dozens of frac sand mines have been permitted by gatekeepers on county, township, or village boards who had little knowledge of frac sand issues. “At one point in Buffalo County, the board of review was made up of two dairy farmers and a fisherman,” said Vinehout. Parochial officials, she said—some of whom are elected by no more than a few dozen votes—are only as educated about frac sand as they want to be.

On the other end of the spectrum are municipal officials who seek to profit themselves from the boom. The Minneapolis Star Tribune found that officials in at least three counties—including Trempealeau, which has permitted more frac sand mines than any county in the state—have gone into business with mining companies. Vinehout recalled that in Arcadia, one Board of Supervisors member used his position to impose heavy restrictions on a proposed mine on a neighbor’s land; a month later, his board colleagues approved a mine on his property to be built by the same company. Lien told of a Trempealeau County land use committee member whose property has been approved, by his fellow committee members, for a frac sand loading site. And although they technically skirt Wisconsin’s bans on quid-pro-quo, frac sand mining companies frequently lavish gifts upon the tiny, penny-wise towns where they operate. “Donations of land for a park, a new firetruck—one of the mines bought elf costumes for the 4H club in town,” Vinehout said.

“We’ve had things like that travel back to us,” Lien said. “‘Your kids in your school district will never have to buy sports equipment again.’” Frac sand companies call this acting like upstanding members of their new communities. Their skeptics call this bribery.

Frac sand washing ponds at a Wisconsin mine. Recently, a similar berm at a different facility failed, further questioning the impact of sand mining.

Whether intentional or not, frac sand companies are also creating huge backlogs at the beleaguered local offices that help oversee them by hiring away regulators for their expertise. But the most devious way that mining companies avoid local impositions is through a process called annexation. Wisconsin counties are divided into townships; in each township, some of the land has been incorporated into small villages, while the rest is the township’s alone. Villages have the power to vote to annex land within a few miles of their borders without the township being able to stop them. After five years’ time, the village collects all of the tax revenue from businesses operating on that land.

In February, as chronicled by the Star Tribune, the village of Blair leadership did exactly that, annexing the largest frac sand mine in Trempealeau County from the Preston Township. Thus, many of the conditions Preston had exacted from the Pennsylvania-based Preferred Sands—like routine air-quality monitoring—loosened or simply evaporated. “Of course,” said Lien, “the land itself doesn’t pick up and move. The people [in Preston] are still affected—they just don’t have a voice.” By 2018, the tens of thousands in tax revenue the plant generates will transfer entirely to Blair, population 1,366.

The words “open for business” are now emblazoned on all the welcome signs greeting drivers as they cross the Wisconsin state line. Fittingly, the first of these to be installed faced southeastern Minnesota, which has refused to engage with what Minnesota Democrats see as Walker’s race to the bottom. This has had the effect of keeping the frac sand industry small and slow-growing. As of April, Minnesota had only eight operational frac sand mines. Few doubt that without Minnesota’s far stricter environmental regulations, they would have more.  

And yet, with frac sand so valuable, companies are increasingly willing to operate in Minnesota. This, in spite of the fact that the state Health Commissioner is designing limits on airborne crystalline silica around mines—and pushing municipalities to scrutinize environmental impact, instead of compete with one another. Seeing the frac sand industry operate under a stricter environmental regime just across the border pains Wisconsin state officials like Senator Vinehout. Even the best reporting on frac sand conflicts, she points out, come from across state lines at the Star Tribune. Lien feels the sting of jealousy, too, although he insists, like most of those bullish on regulation whom I spoke to, that he is not anti-mining. “I’m just against the Scott Walker mentality: ‘Our doors [are] open to all business, no matter the cost to the environment.’”

Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden. 

  1. The EPA has tightly regulated crystalline silica in workplaces for decades, but they do not set ambient, or airborne, standards.

  2. Not that Democrats are uniformly worried about the consequences of frac sand mining. Many have other things on their mind. “My colleagues on the other side of the state are like, wait, what is frac sand again?” Shilling said.

  3. As it was filed against the DNR, FTSI declined to comment, except to say, “FTSI anticipates the DNR’s decision to issue the permit will be upheld.”