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How Rural America Got Fracked

The environmental nightmare you know nothing about.

| Wed May 23, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Town-Busting Tactics

Frac-sand corporations count on a combination of naivete, trust, and incomprehension in rural hamlets that previously dealt with companies no larger than Wisconsin's local sand and gravel industries. Before 2008, town boards had never handled anything beyond road maintenance and other basic municipal issues. Today, multinational corporations use their considerable resources to steamroll local councils and win sweetheart deals. That's how the residents of Tunnel City got taken to the cleaners.

On July 6, 2011, a Unimin representative ran the first public forum about frac-sand mining in the village. Other heavily attended and often heated community meetings followed, but given the cascades of cash, the town board chairman's failure to take a stand against the mining corporation, and Unimin's aggressiveness, tiny Tunnel City was a David without a slingshot.

Local citizens did manage to get the corporation to agree to give the town $250,000 for the first two million tons mined annually, $50,000 more than its original offer. In exchange, the township agreed that any ordinance it might pass in the future to restrict mining wouldn't apply to Unimin. Multiply the two million tons of frac-sand tonnage Unimin expects to mine annually starting in 2013 by the $300 a ton the industry makes and you'll find that the township only gets .0004 percent of what the company will gross.

For the Gregars, it's been a nightmare. Unimin has refused five times to buy their land and no one else wants to live near a sand mine. What weighs most heavily on the couple is the possibility that their children will get silicosis from long-term exposure to dust from the mine sites. "We don't want our kids to be lab rats for frac-sand mining companies," says Jamie.

Drew Bradley, Unimin's senior vice president of operations, waves such fears aside. "I think [citizens] are blowing it out of proportion," he told a local publication. "There are plenty of silica mines sited close to communities. There have been no concerns exposed there."

That's cold comfort to the Gregars. Crystalline silica is a known carcinogen and the cause of silicosis, an irreversible, incurable disease. None of the very few rules applied to sand mining by the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) limit how much silica gets into the air outside of mines. That's the main concern of those living near the facilities.

So in November 2011, Jamie Gregar and 10 other citizens sent a 35-page petition to the DNR. The petitioners asked the agency to declare respirable crystalline silica a hazardous substance and to monitor it, using a public health protection level set by California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The petition relies on studies, including one by the DNR itself, which acknowledge the risk of airborne silica from frac-sand mines for those who live nearby.

The DNR denied the petition, claiming among other things that—contrary to its own study's findings—current standards are adequate. One of the petition's signatories, Ron Koshoshek, wasn't surprised. For 16 years he was a member of, and for nine years chaired, Wisconsin's Public Intervenor Citizens Advisory Committee. Created in 1967, its role was to intercede on behalf of the environment, should tensions grow between the DNR's two roles: environmental protector and corporate licensor. "The DNR," he says, "is now a permitting agency for development and exploitation of resources."

In 2010, Cathy Stepp, a confirmed anti-environmentalist who had previously railed against the DNR, belittling it as "anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes," was appointed to head the agency by now-embattled Governor Scott Walker who explained: "I wanted someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality."

As for Jamie Gregar, her dreams have been dashed and she's determined to leave her home. "At this point," she says, "I don't think there's a price we wouldn't accept."

Frac-Sand vs. Food

Brian Norberg and his family in Prairie Farm, 137 miles northwest of Tunnel City, paid the ultimate price: he died while trying to mobilize the community against Procore, a subsidiary of the multinational oil and gas corporation Sanjel. The American flag that flies in front of the Norbergs' house flanks a placard with a large, golden NORBERG, over which pheasants fly against a blue sky. It's meant to represent the 1,500 acres the family has farmed for a century.

"When you start talking about industrial mining, to us, you're violating the land," Brian's widow, Lisa, told me one March afternoon over lunch. She and other members of the family, as well as a friend, had gathered to describe Prairie Farm's battle with the frac-sanders. "The family has had a really hard time accepting the fact that what we consider a beautiful way to live could be destroyed by big industry."

Their fight against Procore started in April 2011: Sandy, a lifelong friend and neighbor, arrived with sand samples drillers had excavated from her land, and began enthusiastically describing the benefits of frac-sand mining. "Brian listened for a few minutes," Lisa recalls. "Then he told her [that]… she and her sand vials could get the heck—that's a much nicer word than what he used—off the farm. Sandy was hoping we would also be excited about jumping on the bandwagon. Brian informed her that our land would be used for the purpose God intended, farming."

Brian quickly enlisted family and neighbors in an organizing effort against the company. In June 2011, Procore filed a reclamation plan—the first step in the permitting process—with the county's land and water conservation department. Brian rushed to the county office to request a public hearing, but returned dejected and depressed. "He felt completely defeated that he could not protect the community from them moving in and destroying our lives," recalls Lisa.

He died of a heart attack less than a day later at the age of 52. The family is convinced his death was a result of the stress caused by the conflict. That stress is certainly all too real. The frac-sand companies, says family friend Donna Goodlaxson, echoing many others I interviewed for this story, "go from community to community. And one of the things they try to do is pit people in the community against each other."

Instead of backing off, the Norbergs and other Prairie Farm residents continued Brian's efforts. At an August 2011 public hearing, the town's residents directly addressed Procore's representatives. "What people had to say there was so powerful," Goodlaxson remembers. "Those guys were blown out of their chairs. They weren't prepared for us."

"I think people insinuate that we're little farmers in a little community and everyone's an ignorant buffoon," added Sue Glaser, domestic partner of Brian's brother Wayne. "They found out in a real short time there was a lot of education behind this."

"About 80% of the neighborhood was not happy about the potential change to our area," Lisa adds. "But very few of us knew anything about this industry at [that] time." To that end, Wisconsin's Farmers' Union and its Towns Association organized a daylong conference in December 2011 to help people "deal with this new industry."

Meanwhile, other towns, alarmed by the explosion of frac-sand mining, were beginning to pass licensing ordinances to regulate the industry. In Wisconsin, counties can challenge zoning but not licensing ordinances, which fall under town police powers. These, according to Wisconsin law, cannot be overruled by counties or the state. Becky Glass, a Prairie Farm resident and an organizer with Labor Network for Sustainability, calls Wisconsin's town police powers "the strongest tools towns have to fight or regulate frac-sand mining." Consider them so many slingshots employed against the corporate Goliaths.

In April 2012, Prairie Farm's three-man board voted 2 to 1 to pass such an ordinance to regulate any future mining effort in the town. No, such moves won't stop frac-sand mining in Wisconsin, but they may at least mitigate its harm. Procore finally pulled out because of the resistance, says Glass, adding that the company has since returned with different personnel to try opening a mine near where she lives.

"It takes 1.2 acres per person per year to feed every person in this country," says Lisa Norberg. "And the little township that I live in, we have 9,000 acres that are for farm use. So if we just close our eyes and bend over and let the mining companies come in, we'll have thousands of people we can't feed."

Food or frac-sand: It's a decision of vital importance across the country, but one most Americans don't even realize is being made—largely by multinational corporations and dwindling numbers of yeoman farmers in what some in this country would call "the real America." Most of us know nothing about these choices, but if the mining corporations have their way, we will soon enough—when we check out prices at the supermarket or grocery store. We'll know it too, as global climate change continues to turn Wisconsin winters balmy and supercharge wild weather across the country.

While bucolic landscapes disappear, aquifers are fouled, and countless farms across rural Wisconsin morph into industrial wastelands, Lisa's sons continue to work the Norberg's land, just as their father once did. So does Brian's nephew, 32-year-old Matthew, who took me on a jolting ride across his fields. The next time I'm in town, he assured me, we'll visit places in the hills where water feeds into springs. Yes, you can drink the water there. It's still the purest imaginable. Under the circumstances, though, no one knows for how long.

Ellen Cantarow's work on Israel/Palestine has been widely published for over 30 years. Her long-time concern with climate change has led her to investigate the global depredations of oil and gas corporations at TomDispatch. Many thanks to Wisconsin filmmaker Jim Tittle, whose documentary, The Price of Sand, will appear in August 2012, and who shared both his interviewees and his time for this article. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

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