Many Sand Counties

A new cash crop is shifting the contours of Wisconsin’s countryside.

By Philip Walsh

Two saucers full of sand sit on my desk. One contains a heathery mix of grains that I scooped up from L Street Beach in South Boston. It’s a blend of dark, light, and medium stone, mostly quartz weathered from the granite mountains of New Hampshire. Viewed at a distance it’s just gray.

The coastal sands of southern New England were originally washed down by glacial floodwaters when the Laurentide Ice Sheet began to retreat about 20,000 years ago. Sand is dynamic, particularly when acted upon by the ocean. And indeed, the effect of water on stone is the very genesis of sand. The action of millennia of waves and currents reshapes the grains themselves. This sand is “semiangular”: The grains are irregular and somewhat sharp edged, although the occasional near sphere of transparent quartz does crop up now and again, as I peer at it through a 10x loupe. It is very young sand.

The second dish of sand is quite another matter. It’s an even golden color, reminiscent of straw or lightly done toast. The grains are on the whole much finer than the beach sand, and even without magnification they have a remarkable consistency, almost a silky quality. Under the loupe the grains are almost all rounded, most nearly spherical. The saucer also holds several large lumps of aggregated sand, still damp when I collected them at a mine operated by Fairmount Santrol at Menomonie, Wisconsin. This is sandstone from the Wonewoc Formation, and the mine was originally prospected by a nearby glassmaking company. Some of the sand from this site still ends up as windows. When I gathered these lumps of sand at the quarry, still moist, the stone had the consistency of halvah and readily crumbled into a heap of the distinctive, fine golden grains. Now that the sample has dried it behaves more like the sandstone it is. The Wonewoc sandstone dates to the early Cambrian Period, about 500 million years ago. It was smoothed into its typical roundness and sorted into beds by the actions of shallow seas that lapped the shores of supercontinents that predate even Pangaea, the breakup of which continues to shape our globe. This sand is so old that the tides that refined it were governed by a shorter day and a year 400 days long. It is unthinkably ancient.

This is the sand, and sand like it from similarly ancient formations, that has wrought intense conflict in Wisconsin, a conflict that is spreading to Minnesota, Ohio, Missouri, Maine, and other states where similar sand is found. This extraordinary sand has been drafted to serve as a key component in the mix of chemicals and water injected into the earth’s crust in the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that has redrafted the map of the gas and oil industries and, in the matter of a few years, contributed to a reorienting of the world’s petrochemical economy.

Dave Hesch met me on the site of a sand mine he helped to develop for Sierra Frac Sand, a company with headquarters in Texas. The site is just outside Arcadia, Wisconsin, in Trempealeau County, where Hesch has lived his whole life. Hesch operated a construction company before he became involved in sand mining. “We’re sitting on top of a gold mine,” Hesch said as we sat talking in his pickup truck, staying warm on a cold November afternoon. We were at a small mine, less than 20 acres, where the sand was extracted, then shipped elsewhere for washing and processing. Mining is over here, now. The vein of sandstone is now too deep to be profitably removed. The land sits along a county highway and was leased from a local family who previously used it as a pasture on their dairy farm. The owners were paid a $1 per ton royalty on the product extracted from their mine in an operation that lasted less than two years, start to finish. Sierra Frac Sand ended up with 500,000 tons of sand. The landowner received a royalty of half a million dollars. Many mines on leased land are much larger. “People become instant millionaires,” Hesch said.

Part of the distinctive nature of the sand and the Wisconsin topography is that the places where the sand is found are seldom rich for farming. Notwithstanding the title of Aldo Leopold’s classic text, there is no Sand County in Wisconsin. There are many sand counties. The communities that have developed within them are often poor. Landowners are always looking for ways to augment their revenues, perhaps just to keep the family farm going for another generation. The sudden wealth generated by sand mining creates conflicts and jealousies. The mine Hesch was working on was on land that had been split among members of a family. The fluke that the previously worthless ridge land, with soils too thin to farm and too steep anyway, generated a windfall akin to a lottery jackpot led to disputes that play out in rural communities across the western half of the state. Neighbor fights neighbor. Hesch has had to largely withdraw from his public life in Arcadia: He has too many enemies.

Leopold’s writings were rooted in part in his efforts to reclaim an abandoned farm outside Baraboo, Wisconsin, about a hundred miles southeast of Arcadia. References to the sandy soil of the site pervade his work. The converted chicken coop he and his family used as a refuge from his work as a professor in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin still stands as a pilgrimage site for environmentalists from around the world.

It is a bitter paradox that environmental and economic politics are played out upon a landscape populated by deeply thoughtful people who have done their utmost to engage with elements put into play by Leopold and his idea of a “land ethic”: simply put, that the land, and the full spectrum of its inhabitants, has the right to exist without regard to its immediate economic value. About 50 miles downstream from Leopold’s shack, the Wisconsin River flows through farmland that belonged to Frank Lloyd Wright’s family, the site of Taliesin, his studio/homestead and working farm. Southwestern Wisconsin saw the germination of one of the main sources of modernist architecture and, however little Leopold may have thought of Wright’s building, the ethos embodied by Wright’s Prairie style is a genealogical precursor of Leopold’s worldview: part scientific, part moral, part aesthetic, part mystical.

Curt Meine, a senior fellow at the Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, the author of an acclaimed biography of Leopold, the editor of the Library of America edition of Leopold’s writings, and a nature and environment writer in his own right, views the rapid growth of the sand mining industry spurred by fracking as a juggernaut unto itself among the many environmental challenges faced by his state. I spent the better part of a misty November morning hiking the bluff behind the farmstead Meine leases from a conservation-minded landowner not far from Baraboo. Meine’s love of the landscape of the Upper Midwest was obvious as we sat on the bluff, looking west toward the Wisconsin River as it wends to the Mississippi. This is the Driftless Area, a distinctive island in the geography of Wisconsin that escaped glaciation during the past several ice ages. Ravines are deeply cut, and the ridges stand dramatically next to narrow valleys. The bluff we sat on is limestone, not the coveted sandstone, but the effect in the plant community is much the same: The thin soil of the bluff top, coupled with the angle of the slope, means that these areas are vestiges of earlier plant communities that were not disturbed or eradicated by agriculture. “The bluff tops are a seed source,” Meine said. “The prairie remnants are the most vulnerable and least protected of the Midwest’s historical landscapes.” Indeed, I spent my spare moments over the next few days picking small seed-bearing burrs off my pants and jacket.

Meine sees the scale of the Wisconsin landscape, its mesh of agricultural and urban endeavors, as a proving ground for the economy of the future, where small farms provide food to nearby communities that are employed by local industries in a manner similar to what has already begun to happen in the orbit of Madison, some 40 miles away. “The Driftless Area,” he said, “is the hope of the world.”

In 2014, the oil and gas industry was expected to need about 95 billion tons of sand for fracking operations. (A single shale-gas well can use 2,000 tons of sand in a year; individual wells are repeatedly fractured to extend their output.) In 2014, Wisconsin produced about 36 million tons of sand. Published estimates suggest that the state will produce 50 million tons per year by 2017. The net effect will change the appearance of Wisconsin’s landscape permanently as the ridges and bluffs that contain the valuable fracking-grade sands are removed. It may be the biggest impact on the form of the landscape since the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet.

In fracking fluid, sand serves as a “proppant.” The sand acts as tiny wedges that hold open the fissures newly created by the fracturing process to allow the gas or oil to flow through the rock and out of the well. The grains must be very hard to withstand the pressure exerted by the surrounding rock. The shape of these particles is critical: Just like the glass marbles used in floral arrangements, their spherical form prevents them from packing together so closely that they block the flow of the well. This nonaggregating characteristic is why these sands, along with desert sands, are not suitable for construction. They won’t hold concrete together. Semiangular sand, found in glacial outwash and on the beach, does that best.

Sand mining has a long history in Wisconsin, as the state has large deposits of sand from glacial outwash as well as the more ancient sands used in glassmaking, metal casting, and fracking. A few mines are fully underground, and some, like Fairmount Santrol’s Maiden Rock mine, have even been reclaimed as habitat for threatened species of bats. Sand suitable for fracking, however, occurs in formations that are now the ridges and bluffs that make up the characteristic topography of the western Wisconsin landscape. It is removed by strip-mining techniques similar to those used in coal mining.

Staging areas are constructed next to the deposits to be extracted, and the process of removing the soil and the underlying strata of material—the “overburden” in mining parlance—is begun by storing these materials in berms, sorted by their stratigraphy: The “A horizon,” that is, the soil, is stripped off and stored separately from the “B horizon” subsoils and the “C horizon” overburden, the nature of which varies by location. Over the life of the mine, the materials stored in the berms are rotated back into use in the reclamation process. To avoid double handling of these materials, as new sections of the mine are opened, the soil and subsoil from the new excavation are used to reclaim the areas previously mined. In a complex ballet orchestrated by mining engineers and carefully reviewed by permitting agencies, the material from the site is reorganized and replaced as the mine progresses. The topsoil from one part of the site ends up as topsoil in another area, along with the various substrata and the sand that is not marketable, reassembled according to the proper A, B, and C horizon order. Once the overburden is removed, mining operations begin to extract the sand by developing a “high wall” that slices through the formation. Explosives cut away the sand from the high wall, one vast slab at a time. It is then transferred by truck or conveyor belt to the processing facility to be washed, sorted, stored, or shipped.

NR 135 is the section of the Wisconsin Administrative Code that regulates nonmetallic mining, including the reclamation of the site. It mandates that county governments review and permit reclamation plans in accordance with a set of guidelines that specify standards for reclamation, permitting, and public review. The environmental impacts of traditional sand and gravel mining have been thought to be lower than those of mining for metals, which can entail the release of a host of toxic compounds into the environment, and which is regulated by the state and the Environmental Protection Agency. The task of reclamation after the end of sand mining operations is also quite different. In consequence, outside of cities and towns with their own ordinances, the permitting and regulation of new sand mines is administered by county officials, each of whom faces a unique political, economic, and geographic context.

Although the long-term players in the sand business in Wisconsin hold land in their own right, often thousands of acres of it, much of frac sand mining is done on leased lands. Leases are often arranged by brokers who contract with landowners on royalty systems of various sorts. These are private agreements and in general not made public. In turn, brokers package these leases into bundles that can then be prepared for permitting and exploitation by a developer, who may be responsible for the design and engineering of the postmining reclamation plan. The permitted site, which may include land or portions of parcels of land that belong to several landowners, may then be sold to yet another entity, the mining company that will execute the actual mining. This arrangement poses a challenge to the public officials whose job it is to protect taxpayers from the eventual consequences of the operation. Mining operations may be required to put up a bond that will cover the cost of reclamation should their operation fail to meet its obligations. But the long-term effects of the new mining operations are unknown, particularly because sand for the oil and gas industry requires a higher degree of processing than other sand products.

The demand for sand has risen almost exponentially since 2008. Sand that once sold for $45 a ton reached $300 a ton for certain grades and sizes of particle (the price fluctuates according to trends for particular grades of sand and based on the cost of transportation). Whereas sand mining in Wisconsin had largely been in the hands of four large companies with long histories in the state, now dozens of new companies have formed to exploit the new opportunity, and many of them are based out of state. Very little public funding has been added to regulate or supervise sand mining on the county level. The larger players in the industry organized the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association (WISA) to protect the interests of the industry, particularly with regard to legislation regulating the industry and the problem of reclamation.

Several of the founding members of WISA, all of whom were mining in Wisconsin prior to the “sand rush,” have made considerable investment in researching and implementing state-of-the-art reclamation practices in their facilities. Fairmount Santrol and Badger Mining are among them. But nothing compels a mining company to join WISA, and WISA cannot enforce best-practices protocols on its own members.

The intended use of the land after mining is an open question. Under the mandate of NR 135, reclamation plans hinge upon the determination of the final usage of the land after mining. Dan Masterpole is the director of the Department of Land Conservation and Forest Management for Chippewa County, one of the epicenters of the growth in sand mining. “Postmining land use is something we have struggled with in this office,” he says. Reclamation plans are evaluated with regard to what the land will be used for afterward, not what it was like beforehand. Procedures for agricultural land might be different from those used for a wildlife preserve or a recreation area, for example.

At Menomonie, Fairmount Santrol’s mine lies just on the edge of town, opposite the entrance to the county airport. It is land that was already in use as a farm, and part of it still is: One of the distinctive aspects of sand mining is that some land within the mine may well be still under cultivation. When I visited the mine, rows of corn stood drying adjacent to the water storage pond; a young buck, startled, bounded off through the leaves. The postmining reclamation plan for the land returns some of it to farming. But other parts will be zoned for commercial use, and the overall flatter topography will facilitate the development of the site for urban and semiurban use. From an economic perspective the land will actually be improved by the mining operation.

The potential for improvement is less clear in more rural areas. In Chippewa County, mining operations sprawl over hundreds of acres of farmland, and active mines are wedged among farmhouses and small-scale residential development. There is very little topsoil to put back on the ground when mining is finished. A steady flow of dump trucks carries sand to processing facilities. Whenever possible, mining and processing operations run 24 hours a day. Once the winter cold sets in, it is not economically feasible to continue sand washing and processing operations, so enormous stockpiles are accumulated in the warm months to feed the market during the winter.

Immense sidings have been built to accommodate the vast numbers of specially built sand-carrying railroad cars. In the early days of the sand boom, dairy tank cars were used to transport the sand. This practice was abandoned, not surprisingly, owing to cross-contamination issues. The new rail cars for the sand industry have a distinctive squat profile to hold the extra weight of their load. They are instantly identifiable as they rest on sidings outside New Auburn and elsewhere across the state. New Auburn, a small village, is now home to two substantial mining and processing operations. Because of rail access, these operations are located in the heart of the town, closest to the rail lines. Logistics plays a determining role in which areas of the state are fertile for mining operations: Railroads are especially favorable for the transportation of sand, and second to that, state highways. The industry already pays supplemental fees to offset the damage inflicted on the road system by the trucking of sand.

Badger Mining opened a mine near Taylor, Wisconsin, in Jackson County, in 1979. At roughly 6,000 acres, the site is something of a museum of reclamation technologies, ranging from replanting efforts spearheaded by Boy Scouts to computer-assisted landforming technologies that sculpt the site into a semblance of untouched nature. Evan Mudd, a Missouri-trained mining engineer, studied geomorphic reclamation techniques with Nicholas Bugosh, a pioneer in the field. Bugosh developed software for Carlson, a company that serves the mining and land development industries. Bugosh experimented with geomorphic techniques for reclaiming mining operations in New Mexico in 2002, modeling hydrologic conditions for arid desert conditions. Land contours are designed on a computer using topographic and hydrological data from the site. The final designs are used to guide automated bulldozers that rely on GPS systems using satellites to accurately lay out the complex interlocking forms that create meandering paths for runoff. Ultimately the goal is to link the reclaimed areas into the hydrology of the surrounding environment. The newly created landforms, it is said, will respond to rain and flood events in a manner similar to the preexisting landscape.

Because its economic basis is in mining, geomorphic reclamation can enable a reshaping of the land in ways that would otherwise be cost prohibitive. Mudd points out that “millions and millions” of cubic yards of material are moved and restructured. Instead of the minimum reclamation requirements laid down in NR 153 of 1:3 grades and “vegetation” (character unspecified), landforms could be designed for any number of specific goals, aesthetic or economic, and seeded with specifically selected native species. “At the end of the day it will be interesting to see if people can tell,” says Tom Portle, a waste management specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

However natural the end result may be in appearance and function, the end product of geomorphic reclamation is not “nature” as we have tended to define it. It is true that the concept of “nature” is a construct, the product of historically specific human needs and desires. The argument that we are now living in the Anthropocene era, when human protocols and human intervention are the prime movers on the planet, has wide circulation. What would the earth artist Robert Smithson, or others of his generation, have done with creative tools such as Carlson Natural Regrade software? The point of departure of Smithson’s work was the posthuman condition, the despoiled environment of Passaic, New Jersey, and the depleted mines and waste dumps of the industrialized landscape. Wisconsin, like New Mexico before it, has entered a brave new world of engineered landscape. These designs may well be benign, like landscapes specifically designed to provide habitat for Lycaeides melissa samuelis, the endangered Karner Blue butterfly.

The logical extension of geomorphic reclamation techniques is the use of a more sophisticated approach to rebuilding the plant communities on the land. Instead of standardized “Department of Transportation mixes,” reclamation seeding can make use of specifically designed prairie seed mixes to create conditions similar to undisturbed land areas. Exposed topsoil is particularly vulnerable to invasive species such as spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), a pest in the Upper Midwest because it is toxic to native plants. Many invasive species are particularly successful in disturbed soils, and the seeds of native plants are eagerly consumed by geese and other members of the biotic community. Premining Darwinian competition, once upset by human intervention, is difficult to reestablish. Regrowing prairie, scrub oak savanna, or any specific modality of native landscape is more challenging than it might seem. Badger Mining employs Andy Chikowski, a full-time naturalist, to design and monitor the vegetative reconstruction of the Taylor site.

Other aspects of reclamation are less easy to assess. I spoke with Holly Dolliver, an associate professor of geology and soil science at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls. Dolliver is conducting a five-year study, funded by the Chippewa County Department of Land Conservation and Forest Management, to research the impact of mining and reclamation on the soils of the Glaser Mine, a 475-acre site operated by Superior Silica Sands in New Auburn township. Her research aims to answer basic questions about the way soil functions in the environment, particularly with regard to the carbon economy. “One of the problems that I face,” Dolliver says, “is that when you ask the public, ‘What is the native landscape,’ they will sometimes say ‘Farming. Farming. That’s what’s natural to this landscape.’ They’re not worried about, ‘Am I going to have a beautiful native prairie when I’m done, or a beautiful forest?’ Their number one concern is, ‘Am I going to have a soil that I can farm?’”

Soil on the ridges is sometimes only an inch or two deep, and geomorphic reclamation makes use of materials from the site. There are, however, downsides. The processing of sand for fracking involves the use of polyacrylamide, a synthetic compound used in a broad range of industrial applications including the treatment of drinking water. Preparing frac sand for the market involves the use of large quantities of water to wash away clay, silt, and other impurities. This water is contained on the site of the treatment facility and, to limit environmental impacts, it is recycled to wash ongoing sand production. Industry specialists say that about 90 percent of the water used in treating the sand is reclaimed; the remainder is lost to evaporation. Polyacrylamide is used to help remove the clay and silt—known as “waste fines” in the industry—from the sand and from the wash water, thus allowing its reuse. (Polyacrylamide reappears as a component of fracking fluid, but that is another story.)

Polyacrylamide, a polymer, is made from the monomer acrylamide. Some acrylamide remains as a component in polyacrylamide, depending on the purity of the manufacturing process. And polyacrylamide breaks down into acrylamide. Acrylamide’s health effects have been studied since the early 1960s. In high concentration, it is a neurotoxin that can cause permanent disability. Yet more worrisome, it has been identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Institute as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The main source of human exposure has been cigarette smoke and food; in particular, acrylamide is in high concentration in browned meats, potato chips, and French fries because they are processed at high heat. Acrylamide is not known to occur in nature.

“This is not unique to the sand mining industry,” Dolliver says. “In wastewater treatment they are very regulated in terms of the concentration of polyacrylamide they can use. I think the thing that is maybe unique to the sand mining industry is that they use a lot of it.” Although the Food and Drug Administration regulations monitor the presence of acrylamide in food-handling equipment, there are no regulations governing the use of polyacrylamide in the frac sand mining industry.

The waste fines, bonded together by polyacrylamide and sometimes other flocculants, are normally mixed in with the materials removed from the mining site and are put back into the ground during land reclamation. In other cases, the waste fines are simply entombed when the water storage pond is filled in during reclamation. How these chemicals will react in the landscape is unknown. Will they infiltrate groundwater? Will they be taken up by plants and end up in the food supply? If land is reclaimed for postmining use as a wildlife preserve, which puts comparatively little stress on the soil, what happens if at a later point in time it is returned to agricultural use? There are at present no answers to these questions.

Hydraulic fracturing is expensive. For the extraction of oil from shale to be economically viable, oil must sell for about $65 to $70 a barrel. At the moment I write, oil is at $45 a barrel. Demand for frac sand will drop. The economics for the gas industry are different from those for shale oil, and there’s no reason to believe that oil prices will remain below the shale-fracking standard for long. Millions of dollars of mining infrastructure have been built as part of a long-term bet on the market. The sand mines are quiet for the winter; few processing plants can wash sand in subfreezing weather. When I began to research this story, gasoline in Wisconsin hovered at about $2.79 a gallon. It is as low as $1.69 a gallon now. Upon such fluctuations rest the very contours of Wisconsin’s landscape.

Philip Walsh is a writer and researcher based in central Massachusetts.

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