Silica sand is the new gold

Oil companies covet the round granules for forcing gas from deep deposits, but local environmental fears are growing quickly.

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Aaron Scott, plant manager at Wisconsin Industrial Sand near Menomonie, walked among mountains of mined sand.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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CHIPPEWA FALLS, WIS. - The handmade yard sign appeared for just a few days on a winding rural road east of this river town:

"Got sand? Let's mine, not whine."

It didn't last long, say local residents. But it perfectly reflected the contentious land rush that is underway in Wisconsin and along the Mississippi River in Minnesota as shock waves from the booming energy-industry practice known as "hydro fracking'' roll into the Upper Midwest.

The gold in these green hills is sand. Not just any sand, but perfectly round, inert silica sand that comes from the 500-million-year-old Jordan sandstone formation that lies close to the surface in parts of both states. It's a vital component of fracking, the controversial drilling technology that squeezes natural gas out of solid rock.

Energy and mining companies are buying and leasing large tracts of land from Black River Falls, Wis., to Red Wing, Minn., and south along the Mississippi. Sand pits, processing facilities and transportation hubs seem to be opening monthly.

It's an economic boon for some small towns -- a chance to share in the wealth generated by the domestic production of energy. But it is extracting a price from the land, and many people who live and work near the open sand pits fear for their drinking water, streams and health. Silica sand dust causes a number of lung diseases, including cancer.

"It's the full-blown capitalist model working unbridled," said Dan Masterpole, a conservation officer for Wisconsin's Chippewa County, where sand mining has exploded since 2009. "But we all have to be committed to doing this as well as we possibly can, because the horses are out of the barn."

A similar controversy is now brewing in another picturesque river town -- Red Wing. An oil and gas company in Midland, Texas, has bought 155 acres of woods, cornfields and bluffs 2 miles south of town near a small housing development and up the hill from Hay Creek, a protected trout stream. It also has bought land for what local residents say will be a transportation facility on the Mississippi near Frontenac.

Many locals are trying to stop the project before the company, Windsor Permian, gets started. A newly formed citizens group has 150 signatures on a petition that they will present to the Goodhue County Planning Commission this month, asking for one-year moratorium on such projects.

"Red Wing, from an economic point of view, is well known for its beauty," said Keith Fossen, whose home abuts the proposed mine site, and who is involved in efforts to stop the project. "A sand mine and hundreds of trucks traveling on local roads would be bad. It should not be close to a populated area."

The drilling company has not shared its plans with county officials. Chip Krohn, a geologist with partner company Windsor Energy, said this week that the company bought the site because it needs frac sand for its projects in the Permian Basin in west Texas. He said the company is uncertain about its plans for Red Wing, and declined to answer more questions.

But top executives of Gulfport Energy Corp., a large company affiliated with Windsor, told investors in April that it had access to 20 million tons of high-quality sand reserves in Minnesota "which would supply our frac needs for the foreseeable future."

That's nearly seven Metrodomes filled with sand.

Drillers need sand

Silica sand mines have always been part of the landscape in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But until recently, the sand was used primarily for glass and construction, and demand was largely stable.

Then came high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "hydro fracking.'' It's a relatively new technology being used in New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and North Dakota. Drillers inject huge amounts of water and chemicals into shale thousands of feet below the surface that holds natural gas and oil. The high pressure breaks the rock, then sand and other chemicals are injected to keep the cracks open so the gas can find its way up to the surface.

The process raises major environmental questions and is under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but meanwhile there are thousands of such wells around the world, and they each need thousands of tons of sand.

The Jordan sandstone formation, which stretches from Mankato to Madison, Wis., and beyond, provides some of the world's best fracking. It also forms the hills and bluffs that give the land its distinctive shape.

Now, in Chippewa County, huge swaths of that ancient formation have been stripped bare of trees and soil, exposing the gold sand as tractors slowly chew away at the hills. Some local residents compare the process to mountaintop coal mining in West Virginia.

"We have three long ridges of these sand deposits," Masterpole said. "The companies are simply planning to systematically mine the ridges."

Wisconsin requires the companies to restore the land back to where it can be useful again -- but not to the way it was. "I don't believe you can put the land back the way God and Mother Nature put it in the first place," said Ken Schmitt, a farmer and Chippewa County board supervisor who worries about losing the hill behind his house. "The scale of this is the biggest part of the problem."

Industry officials acknowledge the worries. "At the top of the list we have dust, trucking and water," said Rich Budinger, regional manager for Wisconsin Industrial Sands, which owns mines in Maiden Rock, Bay City and Menomonie. "Blasting is another concern."

His company works with local communities to minimize the effects, he said -- tracking water usage, using tarps on its trucks and limiting the use of dynamite.

But the topography will change.

"The end would be a flat farm field that could be used for an industrial park 25 or 30 years down the road," he said.

Wisconsin officials recently counted 120 to 190 mining operations that produce silica dust, although not all are sand mines. In Minnesota, there is a large sand mine near Le Sueur operated by Unimin, one of the nation's largest sand producers, and a much smaller operation in Woodbury.

But interest is growing, said Tony Runkel, Minnesota state geologist. In the past few years he's had dozens of inquiries from operators, he said.

The mines are largely unregulated in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and neither state has standards for silica dust. Operations are permitted county by county, township by township.

"Most of the towns and counties do not know what to do," said Patricia Popple, who helps lead a citizens group in Chippewa County. When two local governments in Wisconsin tried to adopt zoning ordinances to control sand operations, the companies filed suit and won, Masterpole said.

Popple's group fought unsuccessfully against a sand processing plant that soon will open in Chippewa Falls. Hundreds of semitrailer trucks will roll along rural roads, 20 hours a day. The processing facility will use 600,000 gallons of water a day -- enough for a small city -- although much of it will be recycled onsite.

That's the fate Fossen and others in Red Wing want to avoid.

"It's the age-old conflict," he said. "Are you pro-business? Are you pro-environment? And how do you find a balance?"

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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