Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Frac Sand Mining and the Disruption of Place, Landscape, and Community in Wisconsin

I'm very pleased to share an article which was just published by Human Organization, a peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology. The article is based on in-depth interviews and examines the impact of frac sand mining on people's sense of community, quality of life, and place. Please feel free to contact me if you would like a PDF copy of the article or if you have any comments.

Article Citation:

Thomas W. Pearson (2016) Frac Sand Mining and the Disruption of Place, Landscape, and Community in Wisconsin. Human Organization: Spring 2016, Vol. 75, No. 1, pp. 47-58.


Driven by hydraulic fracturing, sand mining has expanded rapidly in western Wisconsin, with hundreds of mining operations appearing over the past several years. Silica sand is extracted from hills and then shipped by rail around the country, where it is pumped under high pressure with water and chemicals into oil and gas wells. An often overlooked dimension of America's unconventional energy boom, the growth of sand mining in Wisconsin has been incredibly divisive, generating wealth for some lucky landowners while creating new environmental hazards for others. This article documents how people experience mining-related changes and conflicts, drawing on ethnographic interviews with residents living next to mines, processing plants, and hauling routes. While not everyone experiences mining equally, I argue that people grappling with a sudden influx of mining activity suffer significant disruptions that erode their sense of place and belonging. These experiences, however, are rarely taken into account by policymakers, local officials, or others seeking to evaluate the costs and benefits of frac sand mining. This omission underscores the need for ethnographic research to deepen our understanding of how people are impacted by new resource extraction industries.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Health Impact Assessment

The Institute for Wisconsin's Health, Inc. (IWHI), a non-profit, recently released a "Health Impact Assessment of Industrial Sand Mining in Western Wisconsin." The report was produced in collaboration with 15 local and tribal health departments and summarizes existing research addressing air quality, water resources, land reclamation, and quality of life.

It was quickly noted by local media that the report downplays health concerns related to silica dust, one of the more contentious environmental health issues raised by frac sand mining. The report concludes that as currently regulated it is unlikely that people living near frac sand operations will be exposed to respirable crystalline silica.

Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA), an organization that has advocated for stricter regulations of frac sand mining, criticized the IWHI report for relying on industry-sponsored studies that focus primarily on larger PM10 particles. Findings from a study being conducted by Dr. Crispin Pierce, director of UW-Eau Claire's environmental public health program, were not addressed in the IWHI report. Pierce's study, recently published in the Journal of Environmental Quality, focuses on smaller PM2.5 particles. His study has found elevated levels of PM2.5 particles near frac sand operations. MEA also criticized the IWHI report for ignoring the potentially higher risk presented in localized settings where multiple frac sand operations are clustered.

While the issue of air quality has received significant attention, the IWHI report also suggests that frac sand mining is likely to affect people's quality of life, disrupting their sense of place and cultural heritage. The report is rather vague in its findings, however.

The impact of frac sand mining on quality of life and sense of place is a question addressed in my own research, which, coincidentally, I discuss in an article that will be published in the next few weeks entitled "Frac Sand Mining and the Disruption of Place, Landscape, and Community in Wisconsin," Human Organization, 75(1). I will be sure to post that article when it finally appears in print.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Save the Hills Alliance: Event on Reclamation

Perspectives on Prairie, Forest, and Farmland
Reclamation, Restoration, and Mitigation

Saturday, November 7, 2015 – 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Veteran’s Center of Menomonie
E4710 Co. Rd. BB, Menomonie, WI
(1 mile North of I-94 on State Hwy. 25)

Speaker, Dan Masterpole, is the County Conservationist and the Dept. Director of the Chippewa County, Wisconsin, Department of Land Conservation & Forest Management. Dan holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Urban and Regional Studies from Minnesota State University-Mankato, and graduate degrees in Water Resources Management and Soil Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dan will lay out the basic rules and regulations of local and state laws related to reclamation standards.

Our Keynote Speaker, Katherine Denning, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. She has conducted research in the fields of plant conservation, plant evolution, and plant and insect ecology. Kathy will discuss her current work, which focuses on assessing the extent to which tall grass prairie habitat reconstruction can restore communities of native insect pollinators.

Speaker, Katie Himanga, has a degree in forest resources from the University of Minnesota and is a Certified Forester. She served as mayor of the City of Lake City, Minnesota, from 2004-2008 and recently served on the Minnesota Silica Sand Rule-Making Advisory Panel. Katie will focus on rehabilitating mining sites, what you need to know about reclamation plans, natural and cultural resources, what to advocate for during the permitting process, and what to watch for once mining is underway. Katie will explain how modern, science-based rehabilitation goes beyond stable and green slopes and considers restoration of ecological function and landscape character.

A question and answer session will follow with the presenters.

This year’s program will be a science-based course on the pros and cons of prairie, forest, and farmland reclamation and restoration.
Presented by: Save The Hills Alliance, Inc. STHA, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable tax-exempt non-profit organization. Our mission is to protect the natural environment and promote the ecologically sound use of land through public awareness, education, and advocacy.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What's $80,000 to a frac sand mine?

For some people, it's a house. For others, it's a car... or two. Or maybe student loan debt. For some frac sand mines, it's a few hours, if that.

Last month Alpine Sand, operating near Arcadia, in Trempealeau County, was fined $80,000 for violating storm water regulations. Their facility was originally cited by the DNR in October 2012 for mismanaging storm water. Then sand and sediment washed into a tributary of Newcomb Valley Creek on multiple occasions in 2013.

What does $80,000 mean to a frac sand mine?

According to the Wall Street Journal, in April the going rate for frac sand was $56 per ton (not including transportation or handling costs). We know that Alpine Sand is permitted to haul 180 loads a day from this particular mine. If we assume that one truckload typically carries about 20 tons (a figure I have heard for other operations), then we might estimate that Alpine Sand moves about 3,600 tons per day.

That means they move about $201,600 worth of sand, daily. If they operate every day, that's $1,411,200 per week. Eighty grand doesn't seem to represent a very big dent in their revenue stream.

What does such a modest fine mean for frac sand mining in general? Well, the Wall Street Journal recently boasted about a Texas-based investment firm striking it rich with Wisconsin frac sand, scoring gains of $1.4 billion on a $91 million investment. Read that again. $1.4 billion. Billion.

I wonder if an $80,000 fine will really encourage these out-of-state billionaires to take environmental standards seriously?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Flying Kites and Photographing Mines with Public Lab

Last month we flew a kite and took aerial photographs of the Hi-Crush frac sand operation in Augusta, WI, using techniques developed by Public Lab. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) is a community -- supported by a 501(c)3 non-profit -- which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. The tools allow ordinary citizens to engage in monitoring and research. Using kites or balloons, Public Lab has developed a easy-to-use system for taking aerial photographs, which has been utilized by communities in Peru to produce maps to support land tenure claims and by environmentalists and citizens in Louisiana to monitor the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In brief, the technology entails rigging up a small digital camera to a kite or weather balloon and then flying it over the site that you wish to photograph. Online, open-source software is available from Public Lab to stitch the photographs into an aerial map. A student and I decided to explore how this technology might be applied by citizens concerned about the rapid growth of frac sand mining. We collaborated with the Concerned Citizens of Bridge Creek and the Citizens for Environmental Stewardship, both based out of the Augusta area, and we were joined by two members of Public Lab who were touring the region to learn more about frac sand mining.