Glenwood City, WI small business owner, Jim Laskin, owns The Café on the main street in town. He serves a homemade meal with organic coffee along with information and updates to people about the newest developments with mining in their community. The oil and gas hydrofracking industry has discovered that Wisconsin has the most premium silica sand in the nation. Strong and spherical, this desirable dusty sand is mined and shipped out of our state by the millions of tons, where it is utilized to prop open the earth for gas and oil extraction elsewhere.
Within just a few years, our state experienced an increase from 3 silica sand mines to 80, with 40 more proposed. What troubles many citizens with sand fracking coming to their communities is the passage of Wisconsin’s 2011 WI Act 144. This law limits the authority of local government to enact a moratorium in order to slow the process down so that citizens may study the effects on the people and the land. This is significant to Laskin, who tells us that he may eventually be boxed in by mines on 3 sides of his rural farm. In addition, one of these mining companies has taken the bold step of proposing a 480 acre open-pit mine in a residential area, next to the public school, in Glenwood City.
Laskin gives us an inside look into a community overwhelmingly opposed to silica frac sand mining within their city limits. He admits that he wasn’t always concerned about mining. But now he says, “I didn’t really have a choice.”
Here’s his story.
How did you go from the local café owner to become interested in the frac sand issue?
“Um…[smiling, shaking head, staring at an empty chair] I didn’t really have a choice.
I had heard in the background that there were these silica sand mines somewhere out there [squinting and motioning away] in Barron or Chippewa county…someplace else …bad things were happening someplace else. Frankly, it wasn’t in my back yard…feel sorry for them.
And then one day there was talk about opening a frac sand mine about a quarter-mile from where we live, and there was going to be a public meeting. So, we went. It turns out that this little gravel pit by our house – which had been there for 45 years and was a non-issue, with maybe 10 trucks a day going by our house – was turning into a silica sand mine (“Downing Mine“).
Before a person had any idea about what was going on, and within the course of 2 months, the largest hill around here became the overburden hill for that mine. It is a huge pit, I actually haven’t been in it [rolling eyes]…nobody’s allowed in it. You know, you didn’t really appreciate how big it was until we walked into our fields and you’d see these little teeny-weeny [holding his fingers about an inch apart] match box toys moving around on the top of this hill. Well these are actually full-sized tractors moving sand back and forth. This thing is a mess, and it didn’t exist 2 months earlier.
And the public roads…I don’t think people fully appreciate what having a million tons of material going over their roads is going to do to them. The fact is that the mining companies aren’t paying for this – the mining companies pay zzzip in taxes. The property owners are going to pay for the roads that are wrecked, time and time again!
And when you have 3 mines going like we may and it is going to be a nightmare.
And now the Downing Mine is going 5 days a week from 6am-8pm…the constant rumble in the background. Thankfully, we are up wind. But people who are downwind have dust constantly and they can’t open their windows anymore, can’t hang their clothes on the line anymore, and who knows what they are breathing in [rolls eyes]. Well, we know what they are breathing in – heaven help them.
This same company (Mathy) is about to open the old Wilson gravel pit that had been closed for years [on the South side of Laskin’s property].
And then this winter people started talking about this local man who was drilling for sand on his own property. And this man is very, very, very well-to-do. His family has lived on this property for 100 years. And his kids live around there, too. I thought [looking out the window and shaking his head] that can’t be. That is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Nobody wrecks their own land, nobody poisons their own well and their children’s wells.
But it’s true. Lo and behold, the proposed “Vista” mine [operated by Texas company Vista LLC] is proposed to be literally right next to us. In no time we’ll have mines on 3 sides of us. And this mine was not only going to be right next to us, but it was going to be between Downing, WI, of 175 people – all of whom get their water from private wells and Glenwood City, of 1200 people, which has 2 public wells, one of which is right next to the proposed mine. The school of 650 children is 1500 feet away. Glenhaven and Havenwood, the assisted living facility is within half a mile away. Well, all of Glenwood City is within 1 ½ miles of this mine. So, you could hardly pick a worse spot for this 500 acre open-pit silica sand mine.
Not only is the “Vista” mine going to be insanely ugly, noisy…but they intend to operate 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. Sundays will be off they say [throwing up hands, looking away]
But also some of the issues with silica sand mining is silica dust (causing silicosis) …Silica dust also seems to cause a chemical form of TB…seems to aid and abet cancer…I mean, it’s just a disaster. If you get it on your skin that’s bad, if you eat it that’s bad, if you get it on your clothes, that’s bad…If you breath it in, well, that’s not good at all.
(This mine worker is sweeping dust from the road near a silica sand mine in New Auburn, WI; 40 miles east of Glenwood City)
(the green hills in the background would be part of the Vista frac sand mine)
Jim – after hearing these descriptions, are you afraid to live around 3 of these mines?
[throws up hands, shrugs] “Well, obviously…it’s not a good thing.”
[long pause, staring out the window for a while]
I’m not a happy camper.
The real politic of the situation is, right now the American oil and gas business is exploding and profitable. The silica sand business is wildly profitable, which is why these characters have come out of the woodwork to open these mines… So, you are not going to stop silica sand mining, I don’t think. The demand is there, the demand for energy is there…Wisconsin is “Open for Business” as our governor [Scott Walker] says. So, you are not going to stop it.
(silica frac sand mine after the hill has been removed)
But at the very least, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put these types of operations where they can do the maximum amount of damage. So, you don’t put a silica sand mine next to 1500 people and their school. At least the Downing mine a quarter of a mile from my house is in a more rural setting and affects fewer people.
The other thought that I’ve had is that these types of mines tend to group together. First, you have one. Then, you have 2. Then, you have 5. You go over to New Auburn and you have 7 of them all within 5 miles of each other. They’ve created a holy hell out there. It’s truly, truly frightening. The truck traffic is non-stop; the roads are destroyed. On a windy day there is just this mist in the air, and you have to use your windshield wipers even though there is no moisture in the air.
(one of the numerous frac sand mines in New Auburn, WI)
And those poor people are going to wake up, 10-15 years from now, and they’ll be all busily dying. And then they’ll discover that something was horribly wrong. But for now it goes on. We are in a state of denial, and we want energy.”
So, explain this to me. I thought higher water and air quality standards existed for mines operating in a residential area?
“Well actually, Vista claims that their activity is along the same lines as other activity already occurring there – which is complete and total nonsense. But it is, in fact, what mining companies have been able to claim all over Wisconsin [with 80 operating mines and 40 more proposed], and they seem to be able to pull it off. In fact, one of Vista’s claims on their permit is because there are currently 2 mines already in the area [Downing and Wilson], then obviously it is ok for them to operate this 500-foot open-pit mine in a residential area.”
So they are claiming that because there are already 2 mines –
[interrupting throwing up hands] “Why can’t there be 20 doing it? That’s the theory!”
Is there anyone taking a cumulative snapshot of how many mines an area can handle?
“No. Wonderful question. No.
One of the challenges is that this issue is like a hydra. There are multiple heads, and it is multifaceted…to answer your question.
Non-ferrous mining in WI has always been around. These small gravel pits – if you have one here, why would you need another gravel pit here? No, you’d have one 30 miles away.
But now, we’ve never had anything like this before. Nobody understands this or can deal with the problems….they’ve went from 5-10 trucks a day to 150 semis a dayand to a million tons of material leaving our area in a 9 month period of time. They don’t operate in mid-winter or it would be even more.”
What kind of input have local citizens had with frac sand mining in your community?
“There have been innumerable meetings. That certainly hasn’t been a problem. In fact, one of the former principals from the school put on a wonderful presentation. He had one person from the DNR, one person from the health department, one person from a mining company…and they all gave presentations with 200 people showing up.
A couple of things were very intriguing.
The people from the DNR, one of the primary regulatory agents, readily admitted that they were in no position to regulate this industry. They don’t have the personnel. They don’t have the equipment. They don’t have the expertise – they can’t do it. But on paper, they are the ones who absolutely have to do it.
The health department essentially said the same thing – we are in no position to (regulate).
And even the mining rep… readily admitted that the sand business could use more regulation! And actually referred to it as “a frenzy” and that these mines were opening at this just crazy rate… and he’s the person absolutely in favor of opening mines! He was surprisingly candid, unlike the guys trying to get the permits, who are snake oil salesmen, in my opinion.”
What kind of contact has the public had with the permit seekers for these mines?
“Vista LLC put on a forum at one of the churches in town. And, obviously, they tell the whole story from their perspective. You know, “we’re mining sand, like the sand in your sandbox, it’s not a big deal, don’t worry about it, it won’t cause any problems, we’re very regulated. There will be lots of jobs, the reclamation is going to be beautiful, you’ll practically never know anything happened, and we are strictly regulated, very regulated, oh so regulated.” The job of these guys is to say whatever they need to, to do what they want to do.
But if you go to New Auburn and see what it looks like in practice on a significant scale – you realize that the reality is dramatically different. You are horrified. You will be shocked. You will be horrified. It is jaw-dropping. Just 40 miles east of here, teeny-tiny town, with now 2 shipping facilities, 7 mines within 5 miles. Nobody can sell anything. Who wants to live there? Who wants to buy that?
Which is what is going to happen to Glenwood City. It will be the ghettoization of Glenwood City in the next 15-20 years. Nobody is going to want to move here. Anybody who can afford to move is going to want to leave. Nobody is going to send their kids to that school, because who sends their kids to a school with an open-pit sand mine behind it? I mean, people here just don’t do that.
But how do you convince somebody that they have to do something to stop this when everything is fine now…when, quite frankly, someone would rather be fishing? They just don’t believe that this change could come.”
What is the plan from here?
“Basically the way this works is, Vista sand needs an exemption from the current zoning [which prohibits them from operating in a residential area].
The exemption would need to be granted by the Board of Adjustments in Hudson. Our county board (St. Croix County) has a sub group and they grant adjustments. At some point they will have a public hearing and lots of information will be submitted by the company and by the public and many citizens and the groups.
The board will decide. They might look for more information, they might put it off, they might say “yes” and they might say “no”. But really, when it is all said and done – it all comes back to the county board.”
So the people with the real power right now are board of adjustments members on the St. Croix County Board?
“Yeah, really, you could say that. Obviously, the zoning department has some powerful input to the board of adjustments. The township of Glenwood has a three-member board that has a fair amount of input, has advisory capacity; one of them had to recuse himself because they live next to the mine. Two of the remaining people did vote in favor of the mine. One of the 2 probably should not have voted, but he couldn’t help himself. That is being looked into.”
What was the rationale for their votes and how were those votes received by locals?
“It was received rather poorly [laughing], verging on disbelief! The rationale was, “it is private land, and you should be able to do what you want on private land”… even if it affects over 1500 people.
The reality is there are some jobs; there’s no question about that. Whether the tradeoff is fair – that’s another question.
Typically, the value of the land around those mines goes down 30-50%, and that lessens as it goes out. A couple of miles away it goes down 5-10%. Not surprisingly, the curb appeal living next to an open-pit mine, with all the attendant ills, is significant.”
Wisconsinites have always placed a value on being “good neighbors”. Is that a topic of discussion in your community?
“Well, the mining company says they will be good neighbors.
But a counter argument could be that it is very difficult for a fox to be a good neighbor to a chicken coop. It just simply doesn’t work. But they will say that they will be. But the mining company has their spiel. They’ve been doing this in Texas for 100 years; they’ve been selling people on these leases forever, and they are very, very good at it.
And there are law firms that specialize at weaseling these permits through, and they are very, very good at it. They downplay or eliminate any of the negatives, they promise positives, and they talk about spreading the money around. They are very good at going to the state and finding townships that are unzoned. They know where to go and talk to little elected officials and butter them up. Township officials have never dealt with anything like this before. I mean, they deal with resurfacing a road or fixing a culvert or adding a road sign. They’ve never dealt with a 4 or 5 or 600 million dollar project, and they never will again! And their internal compasses go bananas. They are fundamentally unprepared to deal with this issue. They don’t know what they are doing. They’ve never seen anything like this…ever.”
How do you see resolving this?
“Great question. It is my hope that the zoning laws mean something – that residential areas were not made for 500 acre open-pit mines. I mean, in Malaysia they do this kind of thing. But, hopefully, not in America. But we’re going to find out, you know? We’re going to see if the rules are, in fact, enforced. That’s what we’re going to find out.”
A primary argument used by silica frac sand mining companies in Wisconsin is that 80 (or more) other mines are already doing it – this, they say, legitimizes another mine. However, cumulative effect of a large number of mines on the people and land in this state has not been studied. Nor have the concerns of the people behind this public policy been given adequate attention.
Some of the concerns Wisconsinites have about frac sand mining of include: formation of silica dust (causes deadly silicosis), runoff pollution, well water depletion, permanent erosion of farm land, food contamination, property value declination, wear and tear on roads, hazardous truck traffic, land reclamation problems, aesthetics, declination of the Wisconsin tourism and farming industries, declination of hunting land and fishing areas, exodus of citizens from small towns and villages, increased tax payer burden, tax avoidance by many mining corporations, siphoning of Wisconsin resources to out-of-state corporations, destruction of the federally protected Blue Karner butterfly, loss of cultural identity, reduction in outdoor recreational activity, noise and light pollution, destruction of Wisconsin’s signature bluffs and hills, ground water contamination and depletion, use of flocculants (containing neurotoxins)…and more.
These issues are magnified in Glenwood City with a mining company seeking to operate in a residential area, ¼ mile from the school. But first, local officials would need to grant a zoning variance, or an exemption, allowing the mining corporation to squeeze through a loophole in the law. Will the line in the frac sand be drawn here?
Laskin shrugs, “We’re going to see if the rules are, in fact, enforced. That’s what we’re going to find out.”
*************************** UPDATE ******************************
After we conducted this interview, a new development was brought to our attention. Vista LLC has revoked its application for the proposed Vista Mine.
On 9/18/12, I called Zoning Specialist Alex Blackburn from the St. Croix County Planning and Zoning Department about Vista LLC’s permit status. He explained the Zoning and Land and Water Conservation Staff told Vista LLC that they would recommend that the St. Croix County Board of Adjustments deny Vista’s application unless Vista could limit its operation to 20 acres. In addition, Blackburn also said that Vista needed to address ground water concerns. Instead, Vista LLC then asked the committee about the possibility of a zoning variance, or rezone, which would allow for a larger mine. Blackburn said that he sent an email to Vista LLC stating that there was no variance language in the Non-Metallic Mining Ordinance that would allow a mine to exceed 20 total acres. This letter also stated that if some of the property were to be rezoned, Vista LLC would still be required to confine the mine to 20 acres. At this point, Vista LLC withdrew its application and has not responded.
When I asked Blackburn if Vista abandoned its plans and left the area he said, “Well, I wouldn’t say that. They could always re-submit.”
Laskin had this to about the news, “Though things are looking up, when there is a potential $400 million pay off – people don’t give up all that easily.”
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