TUNNEL CITY — Retiree Letha Webster’s voice briefly cracks when she talks about leaving the town she and her husband have called home for 56 years. But she says selling her land to an out-of-state mining company was the best move she could have made.
The 84-year-old was approached in late June by a Connecticut-based company, Unimin, that planned to build a sand mine in the area and was paying a good price for houses in the way.
Webster’s struggle to maintain her home and 8.5 acres while caring for her husband, Gene, who has Alzheimer’s, meant she would need to move soon anyway. Webster, whose property was valued last year at $147,400, says she has agreed to sell for more than double that: $330,000.
Others in the area are selling, too. In addition to Webster, there have been at least seven major transfers of land from residents of this unincorporated community in Monroe County to Unimin’s Eagle Land Investments since late May, according to state Department of Revenue records.
The 436 acres have a market value of just under $1.1 million. Unimin paid a combined $5.3 million to the property owners in Tunnel City, a community 45 miles northeast of La Crosse named for a nearby railroad tunnel.
Western Wisconsin is in the midst of a land rush — call it a sand rush — fueled by exploding nationwide demand for fine silica sand used in hydraulic fracturing. In this process, nicknamed “fracking,” sand, water and chemicals are blasted into wells, creating fissures in the rock and freeing hard-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas.
At least 16 frac sand mines and processing facilities are operating, and an additional 25 sites are proposed, in a diagonal swath stretching across 15 Wisconsin counties from Burnett to Columbia. Chippewa County has seen the most action, as Wisconsin Public Radio’s Rich Kremer reported in June.
Trempealeau County has approved conditional permits for half a dozen frac sand operations in the past year alone; another permit is pending approval with another two applications in the pipeline. One land management official there likened it to the gold rush.
There are as yet no silica mines in La Crosse County, but other area zoning and planning officials say they are overwhelmed by calls from mining companies.
“The horses are out of the barn,” said Dan Masterpole, director of Department of Land Conservation and Forest management for Chippewa County. “Demand is outpacing supply. This is an industry that could be with us for a long time.”
Most of the mining operations have sprung up over the past three years, stirring concerns about the effects on land and groundwater and health impacts on nearby residents. Of particular concern is crystalline silica, a dusty substance known to cause health problems including cancer and silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease.
Companies are focusing on sand from easily accessible deposits of Wonewoc and Jordan sandstone, which can be found in central and western Wisconsin, including along the Mississippi River, says Bruce Brown, a senior geologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey in Madison.
The type of sand in the Wonewoc and Jordan formations is known as Northern White, highly sought after by oil and natural gas companies for its shape, size and strength needed for fracking operations.
Companies are rushing to Wisconsin because of the nearly “inexhaustible” supply of this type of sand, which can fetch up to $200 a ton, he says. Wisconsin sand is heaped onto railroad cars and sent out West and elsewhere to fuel the nation’s fracking boom.
Health effects fearedSome communities lack local land-use controls such as zoning to manage the land rush.
In an unzoned municipality, conditions are up to the company and the town board, said Bryce Richardson, soil and water conservationist for Monroe County.
Mining companies often seek out unzoned areas, he said. “It’s usually one of the first things they ask: Which townships are zoned?”
The state Department of Natural Resources does not specifically limit how much crystalline silica gets into the air.
Drew Bradley, Unimin’s senior vice president of operations, says that while the risks of crystalline silica are well known in the workplace, there’s no evidence that ambient exposure poses any threat.
“I think (local residents) are blowing it out of proportion,” Bradley says. “There are plenty of silica mines sited close to communities. There have been no concerns exposed there.”
Judy Carey is worried. She and her husband live across the street from the sand-washing plant in the Monroe County community of Oakdale operated by Proppant Specialists, an affiliate of FracTech Services of Brady, Texas. She says dust from the plant makes its way into her house, coating the dishes in her cabinet. A spokeswoman for the company says it’s investigating Carey’s concerns.
“Your clothes are full of it, you can’t roll your car windows down,” says Carey, brushing sand from a front-porch chair. “The breathing part of it isn’t good. You can just feel it in your throat, feel it in your nose.”
Crispin Pierce, associate professor of environmental health at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, says air quality monitors should be required to measure small particles from sand mining and processing.
The DNR requires air monitoring for particulates at some sand mining operations, but most companies are allowed to bypass the requirement, says Jeffery Johnson, a DNR environmental engineering supervisor. Johnson knows of only one Wisconsin frac-sand processing plant — operated by EOG Resources, formerly Enron, of Houston, Texas — with air monitors. That was done in response to concerns from its Chippewa Falls neighbors.
A major problem is that most studies on crystalline silica focused on exposure in the workplace, Pierce says. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported 75 deaths in Wisconsin between 1996 and 2005 from silicosis, primarily among workers in manufacturing, construction and mining.
A DNR draft study released in December confirmed potential risks from the airborne particles. But it found that just five states regulate crystalline silica outside the workplace, and only two — Texas and California — have the authority to require specific monitoring for it.
The report recommended no additional regulation. The Natural Resources Board is expected to take up the issue once the report is finished in September or October.
Efforts to fight mining failFor two years, Patricia Popple, a resident of Chippewa Falls, fought frac-sand operations in Chippewa County. Her group, Concerned Chippewa Citizens, even filed two lawsuits against the city to block a processing plant. But plans are still moving forward, and Popple has turned to advising other communities in similar positions to act quickly.
Two unzoned townships in Chippewa County also have unsuccessfully tried to block proposed mines. The towns of Howard and Cooks Valley in recent years each passed ordinances to stop sand-mining projects, but Chippewa County Circuit judges threw both out, ruling the zoning laws were invalid without county board approval.
Cooks Valley took its case to the state Court of Appeals, where officials argued they had enacted a regulatory ordinance, not a zoning ordinance. The appellate court said the matter required further clarification from the state Supreme Court, which has not announced whether it will take the case.
After being contacted by constituents in her western Wisconsin district where mines are springing up, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, asked the nonpartisan Legislative Council for clarification on what local communities can do to regulate them. The council determined that zoning is the most direct option, but it cannot be applied after plans for mining are under way.
Vinehout says she’s seeking ideas from residents and other states about regulating nonmetallic mines.
“I think everybody is very interested in economic development,” Vinehout says, “but we’re very concerned about losing our environmental resources.”
Six Republican legislators who have frac-sand operations in their districts were contacted for this story but didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Tunnel City girds for a fightTunnel City residents asked pointed questions about the proposed mine’s effects on water, noise and health during a July 6 presentation at Greenfield Town Hall. They worry about sand getting into their wells. They worry about noise, health and potential depletion of water springs.
Officials from Unimin, which has spent nearly $9.5 million since May 31 to buy 721 acres in Monroe County, said the Tunnel City mine would be unobtrusive and its processing plant completely enclosed and the company would not mine into the water table.
“If Unimin were to walk away today, I am certain, without a doubt, there will be other sand companies that come and look and come and try to set up,” said Unimin vice president Chuck Collins. “We’re No. 1 in the industry in frac sand, we’ll continue to be with or without a plant here. The next company that comes along will not be No. 1.”
Days before the meeting, resident Will Koukios and his neighbor, Tim Harmon, had confronted Greenfield Town Chairman Stephen Witt about why he had not alerted residents to the project. Witt acknowledges he knew about the mining company’s plans as early as June 16, when his own mother told him that she’d been asked to sell her property. But Witt said he agreed not to widely publicize their plans until Unimin was ready to make its announcement.
“If anybody has the responsibility to inform us,” Koukios says, “it’s him.”
Witt says after he heard about Unimin’s plans, he spoke with company representatives and took a tour of its processing plant near Mankato, Minn. He was impressed by the operation, saying the company appears to do a good job.
Witt’s mother and brother ended up selling their properties to Unimin, prompting some residents to question whether Witt had a conflict of interest as town board chairman. Witt acknowledges that he is the administrator of his mother’s estate but says he’s never looked at the will to see whether he would benefit. He also says town attorney Rick Radcliffe has advised him there is no conflict of interest. As far as Witt’s concerned, he’s representing the Greenfield voters as best he can.
Monroe County Supervisor Gail Chapman also has been approached to sell his land. He says he has made no decision yet.
“Our farm has been in the family for … 120-some years,” Chapman says. “I think that our family will not sell that for that purpose, but it’s my thinking anyway.”
Meanwhile, the Greenfield Town Board is negotiating with Unimin over land use issues, including protecting the town’s roads. And officials are considering whether to adopt zoning to protect the town — in case another mine comes in.
Also reporting for this story were Julie Strupp, Lauren Hasler and the Tribune’s Chris Hubbuch.