Local townships have recently been overwhelmed with proposals by frac sand mining companies, and many of us have scrambled to educate ourselves about the possible impacts of this rapidly growing industry. The impacts, however, go beyond sand.
For decades, social scientists have documented the efforts of mining companies to subvert local democratic control over land use decisions. Such trends have been observed in many places around the world where mining takes place and community members ask questions. When large corporations seek to extract natural resources, they often view the concerns of community members as a barrier to future profits.
In Wisconsin, some mining companies attempt to thwart community control by challenging local zoning or regulatory authority. Even the implicit threat of a lawsuit can intimidate small, rural townships.
One recent example involves the Town of Cooks Valley in Chippewa County, which adopted a nonmetallic mining ordinance to regulate frac sand mining operations. It was challenged in a lawsuit, but thankfully the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the ordinance.
Some frac sand companies evade local democracy in other ways. In the Town of Menomonie, the Texas-based company Vista Sand has requested a rezone of 180 acres of farmland from agriculture to industrial for the purposes of building a frac sand transload facility and rail spur. The associated 40-mile hauling route extends into northern Dunn County. They hope to move hundreds of truckloads of sand per day from a proposed 1,000 acre mine near Downing. The impacts of such a development would be wide-ranging, and the town Plan Commission meetings in April and May drew standing-room-only crowds. Nearly all of the community members who commented publicly spoke out against the proposed rezone.
Facing community opposition, Vista Sand apparently has been hard at work behind the scenes. Town officials admit they are negotiating a development agreement, which has not yet been made public. Vista Sand has also approached several community members who live near the proposed transload facility with “cooperation agreements,” offering them money to support the rezone. When asked about this apparent “hush money,” Vista Sand claimed that Dunn County officials directed the company to alleviate residents’ concerns.
At the Plan Commission meeting on May 24, Menomonie officials seemingly endorsed this covert approach. Unable to reach a decision on the rezone, the commission told Vista Sand to work something out with residents who had initially rejected the cooperation agreements.
If the surrounding residents don’t object, the commission intends to recommend the rezone. In essence, local officials wiped their hands of making a tough decision and instructed Vista Sand to manufacture community consent. The commission shifted their responsibility to a handful of residents, now faced with the dreadful decision of turning down a sizable amount of money, or cooperating and being perceived by many community members as having sold out.
Such cooperation agreements, similar to some mining leases offered to landowners, also include confidentiality or nondisclosure clauses that limit signers’ rights to speak out publicly.
What we need now, however, is more public discussion and debate — not less — in order to make wise decisions about the future of our communities. Instead, key voices are at risk of being silenced.
Beyond health, environment or wellbeing, the most severe consequence of frac sand mining may be the erosion of public participation and local democratic decision-making.
Thomas Pearson is a cultural anthropologist and faculty member in the social science department at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.