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How Rural America Got Fracked

The environmental nightmare you know nothing about.

| Wed May 23, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Drilling a horizontal shale gas well.

If the world can be seen in a grain of sand, watch out. As Wisconsinites are learning, there's money (and misery) in sand—and if you've got the right kind, an oil company may soon be at your doorstep.

March in Wisconsin used to mean snow on the ground, temperatures so cold that farmers worried about their cows freezing to death. But as I traveled around rural townships and villages in early March to interview people about frac-sand mining, a little-known cousin of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," daytime temperatures soared to nearly 80 degrees—bizarre weather that seemed to be sending a meteorological message.

In this troubling spring, Wisconsin's prairies and farmland fanned out to undulating hills that cradled the land and its people. Within their embrace, the rackety calls of geese echoed from ice-free ponds, bald eagles wheeled in the sky, and deer leaped in the brush. And for the first time in my life, I heard the thrilling warble of sandhill cranes.

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Yet this peaceful rural landscape is swiftly becoming part of a vast assembly line in the corporate race for the last fossil fuels on the planet. The target: the sand in the land of the cranes.

Five hundred million years ago, an ocean surged here, shaping a unique wealth of hills and bluffs that, under mantles of greenery and trees, are sandstone. That sandstone contains a particularly pure form of crystalline silica. Its grains, perfectly rounded, are strong enough to resist the extreme pressures of the technology called hydraulic fracturing, which pumps vast quantities of that sand, as well as water and chemicals, into ancient shale formations to force out methane and other forms of natural gas.

That sand, which props open fractures in the shale, has to come from somewhere. Without it, the fracking industry would grind to a halt. So big multinational corporations are descending on this bucolic region to cart off its prehistoric sand, which will later be forcefully injected into the earth elsewhere across the country to produce more natural gas. Geology that has taken millions of years to form is now being transformed into part of a system, a machine, helping to drive global climate change.

"The valleys will be filled…the mountains and hills made level"

Boom times for hydraulic fracturing began in 2008 when new horizontal-drilling methods transformed an industry formerly dependent on strictly vertical boring. Frac-sand mining took off in tandem with this development.

"It's huge," said a US Geological Survey mineral commodity specialist in 2009. "I've never seen anything like it, the growth. It makes my head spin." That year, from all US sources, frac-sand producers used or sold over 6.5 million metric tons of sand—about what the Great Pyramid of Giza weighs. Last month, Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Senior Manager and Special Projects Coordinator Tom Woletz said corporations were hauling at least 15 million metric tons a year from the state's hills.

By July 2011, between 22 and 36 frac-sand facilities in Wisconsin were either operating or approved. Seven months later, said Woletz, there were over 60 mines and 45 processing (refinement) plants in operation. "By the time your article appears, these figures will be obsolete," claims Pat Popple, who in 2008 founded the first group to oppose frac-sand mining, Concerned Chippewa Citizens (now part of The Save the Hills Alliance).

Jerry Lausted, a retired teacher and also a farmer, showed me the tawny ridges of sand that delineated a strip mine near the town of Menomonie where he lives. "If we were looking from the air," he added, "you'd see ponds in the bottom of the mine where they dump the industrial waste water. If you scan to the left, you'll see the hills that are going to disappear."

Those hills are gigantic sponges, absorbing water, filtering it, and providing the region's aquifer with the purest water imaginable. According to Lausted, sand mining takes its toll on "air quality, water quality, and quantity. Recreational aspects of the community are damaged. Property values [are lowered.] But the big thing is, you're removing the hills that you can't replace. They're a huge water manufacturing factory that Mother Nature gave us, and they're gone."

It's impossible to grasp the scope of the devastation from the road, but aerial videos and photographs reveal vast, bleak sandy wastelands punctuated with waste ponds and industrial installations where Wisconsin hills once stood.

When corporations apply to counties for mining permits, they must file "reclamation" plans. But Larry Schneider, a retired metallurgist and industrial consultant with a specialized knowledge of mining, calls the reclamation process "an absolute farce."

Reclamation projects by mining corporations since the 1970s may have made mined areas "look a little less than an absolute wasteland," he observes. "But did they reintroduce the biodiversity? Did they reintroduce the beauty and the ecology? No."

Studies bear out his verdict. "Every year," wrote Mrinal Ghose in the Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research, "large areas are continually becoming unfertile in spite of efforts to grow vegetation on the degraded mined land."

Awash in promises of corporate jobs and easy money, those who lease and sell their land just shrug. "The landscape is gonna change when it's all said and done," says dairy farmer Bobby Schindler, who in 2008 leased his land in Chippewa County to a frac-sand company called Canadian Sand and Proppant. (EOG, the former Enron, has since taken over the lease.) "Instead of being a hill it's gonna be a valley, but all seeded down, and you'd never know there's a mine there unless you were familiar with the area."

Of the mining he adds, "It's really put a boost to the area. It's impressive the amount of money that's exchanging hands." Eighty-four-year-old Letha Webster, who sold her land 100 miles south of Schindler's to another mining corporation, Unimin, says that leaving her home of 56 years is "just the price of progress."

Jamie and Kevin Gregar—both thirtysomething native Wisconsinites and military veterans—lived in a trailer and saved their money so that they could settle down in a pastoral paradise once Kevin returned from Iraq. In January 2011, they found a dream home near tiny Tunnel City. (The village takes its name from a nearby rail tunnel). "It's just gorgeous—the hills, the trees, the woodland, the animals," says Jamie. "It's perfect."

Five months after they moved in, she learned that neighbors had leased their land to a sand mine company. "What's a sand mine?" she asked.

Less than a year later, they know all too well. The Gregars' land is now surrounded on three sides by an unsightly panorama of mining preparations. Unimin is uprooting trees, gouging out topsoil, and tearing down the nearby hills. "It looks like a disaster zone, like a bomb went off," Jamie tells me.

When I mention her service to her country, her voice breaks. "I am devastated. We've done everything right. We've done everything we were supposed to. We just wanted to raise our family in a good location and have good neighbors and to have it taken away from us for something we don't support…" Her voice trails off in tears.

For Unimin, the village of Tunnel City in Greenfield township was a perfect target. Not only did the land contain the coveted crystalline silica; it was close to a rail spur. No need for the hundreds of diesel trucks that other corporations use to haul sand from mine sites to processing plants. No need, either, for transport from processing plants to rail junctions where hundreds of trains haul frac-sand by the millions of tons each year to fracture other once-rural landscapes. Here, instead, the entire assembly line operates in one industrial zone.

There was also no need for jumping the hurdles zoning laws sometimes erect. Like many Wisconsin towns where a culture of diehard individualism sees zoning as an assault on personal freedom, Greenfield and all its municipalities, including Tunnel City, are unzoned. This allowed the corporation to make deals with individual landowners. For the 8.5 acres where Letha Webster and her husband Gene lived for 56 years, assessed in 2010 at $147,500, Unimin paid $330,000. Overall, between late May and July 2011, it paid $5.3 million for 436 acres with a market value of about $1.1 million.

There was no time for public education about the potential negative possibilities of frac-sand mining: the destruction of the hills, the decline in property values, the danger of silicosis (once considered a strictly occupational lung disease) from blowing silica dust, contamination of ground water from the chemicals used in the processing plants, the blaze of lights all night long, noise from hundreds of train cars, houses shaken by blasting. Ron Koshoshek, a leading environmentalist who works with Wisconsin's powerful Towns Association to educate townships about the industry, says that "frac-sand mining will virtually end all residential development in rural townships." The result will be "a large-scale net loss of tax dollars to towns, increasing taxes for those who remain."

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