MERRILLAN, Wis. — Ron Baerbock had never heard of frac sand when he moved to Jackson County in 2010.
A Lutheran minister, Ron and his wife, Karen, had spent the previous two decades doing missionary work in Latin America and were ready to retire somewhere they could indulge their passion for farming and be near their children and grandchildren.
They bought a 10-acre homestead, thinking of the surrounding hills filled with deer and turkey, not the fine-grained sand found underneath that was enabling the nation’s boom in gas and oil drilling.
Ron bought an old tractor. They fenced off land for an organic garden, where they planted apple, pear and plum trees. In the old barn they raised chickens, turkeys and ducks for meat and eggs.
A couple of years ago they started hearing rumors that neighbors were signing deals with a sand mining operation but they didn’t know what to believe. Ron assumed it would be a couple of miles away until he attended a meeting at the county courthouse and saw a map.
He learned that a Canadian mining company planned to dig sand from up to 735 acres of hills behind his home, clean, sift and dry it in a plant next door, and then use a nearly 2-mile conveyor belt to move the finished product to waiting rail cars at a loading facility with nearly 10 miles of tracks. Their town and county boards, led by pro-mining factions, changed the zoning and granted the permits.
“I just about fell over,” Ron said.
He gestures out his kitchen window toward a stable a few hundred yards on the other side of their garden.
“That would be the processing plant where that barn is.”
The couple fear the mine would destroy their property value, quality of life and even their health, but they don’t want to move, especially after all the work they’ve put into the place.
“We’re going to be turning 70 this year,” Ron said. “We have no place else to go.”
The Baerbocks are among a handful of Jackson County residents who have turned to the courts in an effort to block proposed frac sand operations, claiming they constitute a nuisance before the first shovel of earth is moved.
According to complaints filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, two proposed mines with processing and loading facilities would infringe on the rights of six families who live on or own neighboring properties. The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to permanently block construction of facilities at those sites.
“It’s going to be noise, it’s going to be light, silica dust,” said Tom Lister, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.
The mine owners say claims of pollution are unfounded and that it’s unfair to judge them based on the actions of others.
“How would it remotely be appropriate to entertain a request to permanently enjoin a business operation based upon other competitor facilities?” argue attorneys for the company hoping to mine next to the Baerbocks. “(A)ny such attempt would be a violation of the due process rights of OmniTRAX to have the fate of its business operation controlled by that operation alone.”
A judge is scheduled to hear arguments this week before deciding if either case can proceed.
A need for more sand?
In filing anticipatory nuisance claims, Lister is applying a long-established legal principal in a way that has yet to be tested in regards to industrial sand mining in Wisconsin.
“No one has the right to use their land in a way that’s going to harm a neighboring property owner,” said Brian Ohm, a professor of urban planning at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the state specialist in land use law, environmental regulation and growth management for the UW Extension service. “It’s a fundamental notion we’ve had going back centuries.”
Lister is banking that he can convince the court sand mines aren’t just a hardship for their neighbors, but that these proposed operations are unnecessary given the proliferation of mines across western Wisconsin.
If the plaintiffs can show that a mine would result in a nuisance, the court must weigh their rights against the greater social benefits of the mine. Lister believes he can win that argument given proliferation of mines in Wisconsin and the current state of the industry.
As demand fell and prices plummeted, many of Wisconsin’s nearly 130 permitted mines closed their doors, laying off hundreds of workers. Last month Chieftain Sand and Proppant filed for bankruptcy, saying the petroleum recession had favored sand producers located closer to drilling sites.
“There’s not any need for any more sand mines,” he said. “There already is an abundance... Many of these are inactive, even some of the major mines.”
But it’s not quite so simple.
“The sand market is a series of submarkets. There are companies in Wisconsin that are doing very well — I wouldn’t say very well, but they’re fine financially. … and there are some that are idle,” said Michael Wick, a mining consultant with the firm John T. Boyd Co. “You can’t just take them all in one lump sum.”
There are a number of factors that have changed since the North Dakota oil boom in the early 2010s sent sand prices skyrocketing. Many of those wells, among the more expensive to operate, were idled as oil prices fell. That led to falling sand prices and forced less efficient operations out of business.
Fracking has continued, although at a slower pace and in different parts of the country.
To be competitive in the current market, sand producers must be able to deliver their product to market as cheaply as possible, which means they must be able to load entire trains and get them there without switching rail lines, which adds costs.
In addition, many of the mines in northern Wisconsin extract coarser sand from a formation that is more expensive to mine because it require drilling, blasting and reclamation.
As a result, sand producers are scrambling to build massive loading facilities along the Union Pacific rail corridor, which provides a direct link to oil fields in Texas, where, Wick notes, drillers have increased production by using fine-grained sand — previously considered useless — prevalent in Jackson County.
At least a half dozen mining, processing and rail loading operations have been built or proposed over the past several years along the U.S. Hwy. 53 corridor that hope to make use of high-efficiency shipping to get the fine-grained sand to oil and gas producers in Texas and Oklahoma as well as Canada and the Appalachian region.
Terracor Resources, which originally proposed the mine next to the Baerbocks, has since been purchased from bankruptcy by OmniTRAX, a Colorado-based shipping logistics firm that continues to pursue the project.
“Anybody that’s got 100-mesh sand right now is in a terrific position,” said Dean Sukowatey, president of Des Moines-based AllEnergy Sand, which has proposed a 750-acre mine and processing operation in the town of Hixton that is the subject of Lister’s second legal challenge.
“It’s almost unbelievable. Back when we were at the peak of the last — before the downturn 100-mesh wasn’t even considered desirable,” he said. “Now it is the go-to size of sand in the marketplace.”
Proving a hypothetical
Proving something will be a nuisance before it exists is a tall order.
“It’s easier to do if you’ve got an actual mine that’s operating and say the way they’re operating this mine is having these impacts,” Ohm said. “It’s harder to do that in an anticipatory standpoint … you don’t know for a fact that’s actually going to happen.”
Attorneys for OmniTRAX argue the plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate any actual damages and that any assertions about the impacts of frac sand mining are unfounded.
“Absolutely no facts are alleged to support the notion that frac-sand mine facilities are known to cause any of the multiple types of pollution alluded to by Plaintiffs, any of the destructive results claimed by them or any of the other negative consequences asserted by Plaintiffs to be associated with this industry,” OmniTrax argues in its brief. “Plaintiffs fail to allege why any factually-unsupported claimed industry practices apply to this facility which is not even yet operating.”
To bolster his case, Lister plans to call in expert witnesses to detail the physical, psychological and financial effects of living near a mine or processing operation as well as former mine workers who will testify to dishonest practices and cheating by the industry.
He also collected stories from people who live next to existing mines.
They complain of constant coughing. Trains blowing their horns every seven minutes for hours on end. Homes that vibrate, cracked walls and foundations. Patios sinking into the earth. Sand in their toilets. Appliances that give out after becoming clogged with sediment.
Dust coats their vehicles in the morning, and they can no longer open their windows.
They put blankets and black plastic over their windows because of the flood lights. They leave their televisions on all night to drown out the noise.
One couple said they’ve stopped doing upkeep on the home they built just 13 years ago in Taylor. With a mine less than 300 yards away, they say the home has lost so much value “we would just be wasting money.”
Mine owners counter that problems encountered at other sand operations are irrelevant.
“We’ve submitted to the court an exhaustive comparison of everyone of the mines that was submitted,” said Dean Sukowatey, president of AllEnergy Sand, which is the subject of one of the suits. “This mine is much more regulated and restricted.”
But Lister said he’s interviewed clerks throughout western Wisconsin who said that mines were following the terms of developer agreements and permits, and yet neighbors still testified to a host of problems.
“You’re hearing from people saying they’re not protected at all,” Lister said.
In two separate cases, Lister has challenged the actions of Jackson County and two town boards, arguing that legislative malpractice should invalidate OmniTRAX’s conditional use permit for the loading facility, which straddles the towns of Adams and Alma.
Supervisors in the town of Adams agreed they violated open meeting laws and based their decision to grant a zoning change on misleading information. A supervisor in Alma has been charged with misconduct in office over allegations he voted to grant a license to a mining company that had agreed to lease his land. The county’s district attorney has sought to void all the board’s votes on mining since 2012.
But it will be up to a judge to decide if conditional use permits issued by the county are valid.
OmniTRAX argues that victory makes the nuisance case moot. Lister counters there’s nothing to stop the company from going back to the county to re-apply.
Meanwhile, the Baerbocks are hopeful that anti-mining candidates can manage to win at least two of the three town supervisor seats up for election in April.
Lister notes his clients, who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees, aren’t seeking damages, which they might be entitled to if the mines are built and cause them damage. By seeking an anticipatory declaration, Lister said, they are potentially saving millions of dollars.
“Once a mine has invested $100 million, you can’t stop them,” he said.
OmniTRAX has yet to complete its application to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for permits to fill wetlands. A company spokesman did not respond to questions about the size of the investment or potential employment.
AllEnergy plans to break ground this spring and have the plant up and running by fall. Sukowatey said the $130 million operation would process about 1.5 million tons a year and support about 50 jobs.
But Sukowatey, who said he has invested $9 million so far in his Hixton operation, said he’s losing money daily. He has asked the court to require the plaintiffs to post a bond to cover “staggering damages” incurred because of what he calls their “baseless” claim.
(Sukowatey also has a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court challenging Trempealeau County’s denial of a permit he sought for another 265-acre mine in the town of Arcadia.)
“The damages are mounting exponentially,” he said.
Additional leverage, potential blowback
Because of the high costs associated with bringing a court challenge, environmental law experts don’t foresee anticipatory nuisance claims becoming more frequent. But they could be a useful tool for plaintiffs who are unsuccessful in convincing their local governments to limit mining activity.
“It may provide some leverage for the property owners to convince the proposed mine to change its operation,” Ohm said.
It could also make the frac sand mining industry more conscientious toward their neighbors as mines seek to avoid the impact of legal challenges, said Sarah Geers, staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates.
Geers said local governments could be spurred to look more closely at zoning and planning ordinances.
But Ohm cautioned it could also spur lawmakers to seek industry exemptions to the nuisance law, as they have done for farming and logging. Such a “right to mine” law would limit property owners’ ability to seek relief in the courts.
“It doesn’t take much,” he said. “Often it’s one or two incidences that may just raise the issue for some legislator.”