Saturday, October 5, 2013

Price of Sand, Film Screening & Discussion, Oct. 17, UW-Stout

Jim Tittle will be visiting UW-Stout in a couple weeks to show his film The Price of Sand, followed by an open discussion.

The Price of Sand is a documentary about the frac sand mining boom in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Due to a rapid increase in demand, pure silica sand has become a valuable commodity, and mines are opening here at a rapid rate. The film examines the local impacts of sand mining and the challenges faced by small towns in the region.

The event is free and open to the public, and refreshments will be served prior to the screening! Come watch the film and discuss its significance with the filmmaker himself.

The event is organized by the Social Science Speaker Series, which is part of the Social Science Department at UW-Stout, and is co-sponsored by several university groups. An event page has been set up at the Facebook site of UW-Stout's Applied Social Science Program.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How frac sand gains local political support: Notes from Trempealeau County

Since the early days of the frac sand boom, many observers have been troubled by the close connections that the industry sometimes cultivates with local town and county officials. These connections underscore how the mining industry relies on both economic and political influence to achieve its goals. In some cases, the relationship between a public official and a private industry would appear to represent a conflict of interest, such as when a town supervisor or a supervisor's family members get into the frac sand business by leasing their land. In other cases, the connections are subtle and indirect, but still effective, such as when deeply rooted allegiances between old friends or distant family member are activated in support of a specific proposal. Whether overt or subtle, the entanglement of political and economic interests creates a decision-making climate that facilitates growth of the frac-sand industry. How does the mining industry secure the support of local elected officials and public employees? How do they cultivate a decision-making climate in which local officials sometimes feel they have no choice but to accommodate the interests of a controversial industry?

Questions in Trempealeau County, WI

Trempealeau County recently passed a one year moratorium on the permitting of new sand mining operations in order to study the industry's health impacts. Over the past few years, the county has permitted at least 26 frac sand operations, including mines, processing plants, and rail transload facilities, representing the largest concentration of permitted frac sand operations in Wisconsin.

Several factors account for the rapid growth of the industry in Trempealeau County, including regional geology and access to coveted transportation infrastructure such as rail lines. But another key factor appears to be a local political environment that accommodates and advances the interests of frac sand mining. Frac sand interests have been able to influence local politics through at least three channels: outspoken industry advocates on key committees, elected officials who enjoy financial ties to mining, and hiring local experts away from government positions.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mine Waste and Pollution Concerns

Investigative reporter Tony Kennedy recently wrote for the Star Tribune about waste water and pollution concerns involving frac-sand mining in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Over the past year, holding ponds at mine sites have failed during heavy rains, releasing sandy sediment and processing water. In some cases, the material has contaminated public waters, threatening to suffocate fish eggs, kill aquatic plants, and otherwise harm fish habitats. Kennedy reports that the WI DNR has cited nearly 20 frac-sand mines for alleged violations of water regulations.

Speaking on behalf of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, Rich Budinger blames small, inexperienced sand companies and heavy rains, and says existing storm water regulations are sufficient.

In addition to holding ponds, Kennedy describes how sand mines create waste material consisting of clay and undersized sand, often called "fines." This material is in part generated during the processing or washing of frac sand, which separates fines from the desired product. The murky wash water containing the fines is then treated with flocculants, chemicals "that cause suspended particles to sink so that the water can be reused." Once separated from the water, the fines are piled as waste material, eventually plowed back into the ground during mine reclamation.

At the Preferred Sands site in Blair, WI, waste piles have absorbed rain water and spilled onto adjacent land on at least two occasions, "trashing the interior of a house, flowing into a garage on another property and fouling a wetland."

Kennedy also reports that state officials and some frac-sand companies are concerned about the widespread use of polyacrylamide, a chemical in the flocculants. "Polyacrylamide contains residual amounts of acrylamide, a neurotoxin linked to cancer and infertility." While polyacrylamide is thought to degrade safely when stored above ground, concerns emerge when the chemical is improperly buried with mine waste. Polyacrylamide and another flocculant chemical called polydadmac have recently been added to the Health Department's list of "chemicals of emerging concern."

Source:  Kennedy, Tony. 2013. Pollution worries abound in frac sand waste streams. Star Tribune, July 13.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Frac Sand: Emerging Conflicts and Community Organzing

Several months ago I was invited to write an article describing my research on frac sand issues for an academic journal called Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFE). The article was finally published this month:

Pearson, Thomas W. 2013. Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin: Understanding Emerging Conflicts and Community Organizing. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment 35(1):30-40.

  • Abstract: Over the past few years industrial sand mining has expanded rapidly in western Wisconsin, driven largely by the use of sand in hydraulic fracturing, itself a controversial technology widely deployed in natural gas and oil drilling throughout the United States. A unique geological history combined with existing railroad networks has positioned Wisconsin as a major supplier of “frac sand” and thus a key link in a wider hydrocarbon commodity chain. The unprecedented growth of frac sand mining, however, has raised new social and environmental concerns, becoming the target of grassroots organizing. This article reports on ongoing ethnographic research focused on frac sand conflicts, providing an overview of the main areas of contention, the trajectory of community organizing, and the response of the mining industry. 

The issue of CAFE in which this article appears includes a few other research reports addressing the social dimensions of hydraulic fracturing and the anthropology of energy.

I'm always interested in what people think. If you have comments or feedback, feel free to contact me!


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Does annexation subvert local controls over frac sand mining?

As community involvement in the expansion of frac sand mining has become more organized and influential, it appears that industry has embraced annexation as a tactic to advance controversial frac sand projects.

Annexation law in Wisconsin allows cities and villages to increase their size through acquisition of contiguous land, a process often initiated at the request of landowners. Cities and villages sometimes view annexation as an economic development strategy that creates an increased tax base. Once a city or village annexes land, it is required to extend public services to its newly expanded jurisdiction.

Some frac sand operations have recently benefited from annexation, pursued to achieve a "friendlier" regulatory environment or to circumvent local opposition to controversial projects. Whether by intention or not, this tactic appears to subvert local democratic control over the decision-making process involving a contentious and rapidly-expanding industry.

Use of Annexation to Force Industry-friendly Regulations

In Trempealeau County, the frac sand industry has used annexation to secure a more lenient regulatory environment. As Tony Kennedy reports, for example, Trempealeau County issued an operating permit in 2011 for a mine in Preston Township opened by Winn Bay Sands LP of Saskatchewan. The permit limited hours of operation to weekdays, required air monitoring, and mandated periodic inspections of nearby homes. But in January 2012 the mine was sold for $200 million to Pennsylvania-based Preferred Sands. Founded by Michael O'Neill, a former Philadelphia banker and real estate executive, Preferred Sands then sought to have the property annexed to the City of Blair, a small municipality surrounded by Preston Township.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Slowing down or unstable?

At the close of 2012, some observers began to report a downturn in the Wisconsin  frac sand rush, underscoring the potential instability of resource extraction industries.

As Kate Prengaman writes for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, demand for frac sand declined due to a surplus of natural gas in the U.S.

From 2002 to 2012, writes Prengaman, citing the U.S. Energy Information Administration, shale gas production increased 2,400 percent. This rapid increase in shale gas production fueled demand for frac sand.

Making a profit off of frac sand, however, depends not only on the costs of production and transportation, but on fluctuating market prices. The frenzied pace of shale gas drilling generated a surplus of natural gas, pushing down gas prices and slowing unconventional gas development, in turn reducing the need for frac sand.

Prengaman reports that county officials in Wisconsin received fewer applications for frac sand operations during the fall of 2012 than earlier in the year. In addition, some permitted mines have not begun construction. Some companies may be waiting for prices to go back up, while others may simply hold onto permits as part of the company's "reserves" or to prevent competition from moving in.

Lance Pliml, chair of the Wood County Board and president of the recently formed Wisconsin Counties Association Frac Sand Task Force, says that some landowners have mineral rights contracts that offer no payment up front and may "not see that windfall they anticipated."

The "slowing" of the frac sand rush could have other adverse economic impacts if mining operations cut back on production and the much-touted "job creation" fails to materialize. This raises questions about the stability of resource extraction industries and whether or not mining offers a sound foundation long-term economic development. While many factors must be taken into consideration, as UW-Extension economists note, the instability represented by "boom-and-bust" cycles and the "flickering" of mining operations can transfer to local communities.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New forms of wealth and division

As part of their periodic series called "Frac Sand Fever," the Star Tribune recently reported about community divisions stemming from frac sand development in western Wisconsin.

In a piece titled "Sand Mining Creates Wealth and Friction" (Dec. 2, 2012), reporter Curt Brown tells the story of Lou Ellen and Jim Frei, a couple in their late 60s who have lived in Blair, WI, in Trempealeau County, for 40 years, and who sold their dairy farm to a frac sand company in 2010 for half a million dollars. Here are some of the financial figures cited in the story:

  • Winn Bay Sand Co. paid the couple, along with three neighbors, $3850 per acre (for their 143 acres). They retained 10 years of rights to continue farming, logging, and hunting. 
  • Preferred Sands bought an 80 acre parcel in 2010 for $250,000 (or $3,125 an acre).
  • Brown reports on rumors of people receiving $10,000 an acre; he writes that the Texas oil and gas company Windsor Permian "has offered more than $15,000 an acre for a possible mining site near Red Wing."
From my perspective, it's interesting to examine how people try to make sense of the rapid social and economic changes associated with frac sand mining. Using a popular culture reference, one neighbor described the influx of frac sand wealth as a rural "rags to riches" story, and subtly frames the hills of rural Wisconsin as a nuisance: 
  • "It's like the Beverly Hillbillies: Who would have thought these hills we've been tipping our tractors over on all these years would become such a hot commodity?" - Lorna Tenneson