Bright lights and rumbling trucks put Trempealeau County residents at odds over frac sand mining and the environment.
It’s 4:15 a.m. when Judt Haase-Hardie shudders awake. Through her open window, she hears the beeping of machinery and the grinding of the earth. She pulls herself out of bed and makes her way toward her cow barn to start the day’s work. Farther west, she sees her country road lit up like a city street. She remembers how it was before they came. Now there are the machines robbing her of silence, the floodlights robbing the night of its darkness.
Since the sand mines appeared in 2010, the residents of Trempealeau County deal with many disturbances. Mines run up to 24 hours a day, which means loud blasts and bright lights at all hours of the night. In times of struggle, one might think the residents would stick together to fight the mines, but the prospect of money clinging to their land leads some to pack up and sell. Those who stay behind must endure the difficulties mining brings while watching the trucks carry away their bluffs in piles of sand.
“Over and over again when we asked them what was most important to them, it was the natural environment, it was the drinking water, it was the scenic views,” says Patricia Malone, UW-Extension development educator.
Frac sand mining is a type of non-metallic mining that extracts frac sand, or silica sand, from the earth. The state of Wisconsin has an abundance of this type of sand hidden under layers of topsoil in its hills. After extraction, it is sent by truck or rail to other states for hydrofracking, a method of extracting oil and natural gas from the sand.
Trempealeau County is home to 26 of these mines and processing facilities. Concerned county residents worry about the consequences for their environment and their community.
Haase-Hardie owns an organic dairy farm bordering the Trempealeau River to the south and a bluff to the north. Hidden behind the bluff is a frac sand mine owned by Preferred Sands. Haase-Hardie says the mine is not visible from her window now, but she expects it to be visible from her home in the future. As a farmer, she respects the land and recognizes that it must be preserved.
“We can’t do whatever we want to do with [the land]. We do not have that right,” Haase-Hardie says. “We are to be good stewards of the land and leave the land in a better shape for the next generation.”
The first visible change frac sand mining has on Trempealeau County is the destruction of the landscape. As more mines enter the community, more bluffs are seen as hosts to resources rather than beautiful landscapes that took billions of years to form.
“I have seen the landscape change prior to the mines due to the immediate clear cutting of an area being prepared for mining,” says Susan Faber, a Trempealeau County resident. “One day it’s a hill with various hard and soft woods. A week later, it’s bald, and the trees are scraped into a pile and burned or buried.”
The impact mining has on the landscape is irreversible. Once the sand is taken from the tops of the hills, it can no longer be replaced, and the hilltops will remain flat.
“The hills are gone and the trees and habitat [are] gone and the animals and birds no longer have homes,” Faber says.
As the hills fall to the hands of the mines, Cristeen Custer, a Trempealeau County resident, says she watches as fellow farmers, her neighbors, leave her road, either because they sold their land to the mines or because they couldn’t endure the light pollution, noise and the loss of community.
“They’re living with the potential of significant air pollution from fugitive dust, and they’re living in what used to be incredibly quiet and dark night skies to an environment that has hundreds of trucks coming and going every day in front of their homes, and a sky lit up 24 hours a day,” Custer says. “So the quality of life, the relationship between neighbors, is severely impacted.”
The disagreements about mining in the county create tension among residents. Long-standing neighbors clash because some decide to take money from the mining companies for their land and leave. Others decide to leave town altogether.
“I decided after three agonizing years of deliberation to sell my family’s farm to a neighbor and move out of the area,” Faber says. “I just couldn’t bear to live there another year and watch what these unscrupulous people were doing to the land and the community.”
Those who remain live among numerous mines and have witnessed a powerful shift from the quiet solitude they once recognized as their home.
“Even early morning when I have my window open, and I have my window open all year round, you can hear some grinding type of noise and it has to do with the sand mine. I’ve never been on the sand mine sites, so I don’t actually know what’s causing it, but you can hear machines moving, the sounds of machines,” Haase-Hardie says.
Although mining has its negative impacts, the industry would not be successful unless it provided immense benefits. The Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association says the sand mining industry creates thousands of jobs and generates millions of dollars for the state.
Workers are needed to construct new mines as well as operate mines and process facilities across the state. Additionally, the boost in the sand mining industry has a positive impact on the truck and rail industries due to the increased use.
Custer says the economic vitality created by these mines will not reach the small towns where the mines are. For the towns, the benefits only extend to the residents hired or people who choose to move to the county for jobs. However, the report states it is more likely that employees commute to work from farther away to avoid these negative consequences associated with living near mining areas. The benefits of mining accrue to the state, while the costs are borne by those who live where mining occurs.
“So that means all of the damage to the roads and the natural resources is going to be at the expense of Trempealeau County residents,” Custer says. “It will not be at the expense of Eau Claire County. It will not be at the expense of La Crosse County, but those counties will capture the revenue and the economic vitality of this industry.”
Custer watches as another line of trucks passes her on her way to work. The trucks are filled to the brim with more sand, the sand that should be filling up the hills in her county.
“I live in the rural area intentionally,” Custer says. “I love the quality of life that it brings me—and I have land that could potentially be attractive to sand mining,” Custer says. “I commute to work with lots and lots of sand trucks, and I’m seeing the hills in my regions being taken away for the sand.”
Taken with the sand is the barrier that’s supposed to filter out the contaminants from Trempealeau County’s groundwater aquifers.
“Clearly they will be altering the hydrogeology of the county. They are removing and they are lowering the elevation significantly, and it will change groundwater flows,” Malone says. “A lot of people have been upset about … how much groundwater is being withdrawn.”
A health impact study created by the county says soil is the first barrier water faces before entering the deep aquifers. Shallow and coarse soils do not provide as much protection from contamination from chemicals as deep and thick soils. When mines remove those top layers from the land, the barrier for filtration is removed with them.
“Groundwater prevention is key. It is so expensive to clean after it’s polluted, and it can be a problem for so many years,” Malone says. “You really [don’t] want to let anything get in there. I don’t care if you’re an industrial sand mine or a grain farmer – you keep your crap out of the water.”
Processing facilities use chemicals to remove impurities during the washing process so they can easily recycle the water. Malone says the mines must use food-grade quality chemicals in order to keep the water safe. If the mines use other forms, the chemical can show traces of contaminants, which takes more time to break down in the soil and infiltrate groundwater easier.
Unlike rivers or streams, when these deep aquifers become contaminated, it can take years or decades before restoration is complete.
“Mining is associated with the degradation of surface water, and every mine that has operated in Trempealeau County has violated surface water rules,” Custer says.
The health impact study report says that when the mines violate the storm water regulations, the water transports sand into nearby streams and rivers. The sand interferes with organisms and other aquatic life by burying eggs under the sand, changing the water’s temperature and decreasing the oxygen level. This results in the death of fish and aquatic plants and the emergence of algae blooms.
Twenty years in the future, the mines will be gone, taking the sand with them. After mining companies clear the land of its resources, they are expected to reclaim the land or restore it to a state that can be used again. Many residents believe the companies are not truly reclaiming the land as they mine.
“When the old trees, the natural habitats, the friendly rural homeowners, who value the untamed land are gone, there will be nothing to replace it,” Faber says. “The old soil mixed with mining sludge is spread back over the mined areas and some kind of monoculture of grass seed is planted with the hopes that the erosion won’t cost the company in reparations.”
Farmers sell their land to the mines expecting to move back to the land and continue their work after the companies have taken the sand, but as they alter the composition of the soil, the once-fertile land is taken away.
“Farming will never be the same,” Faber says. “Yes, they will have more flat land to farm, but it will be dead and fallow land with no proof that future crop production is viable.”
People across the state travel to Trempealeau County for its vast hunting and fishing land. Faber says recreation will decrease because there will be less land to sustain wildlife populations. As the streams and rivers become more polluted from the storm water runoff, fish populations decrease and fishing tourism decreases with it.
“Who would plan a vacation where there are ugly hideous sand mines?” Faber says.
Despite the hardships these residents face from the sand mines infiltrating their land, they still carry on with their lives. They won’t let sand mining affect them.
“You just can’t allow yourself to be eaten up by the works of the sand mine,” Haase-Hardie says. “Life has to go on. You have to find pleasures in life even though you live near a sand mine.”