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Why Fracking May Ruin Your Thanksgiving

Cranberry growers and the fracking industry are fighting for the same resources and tearing one state apart in the process.

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My, how things have changed since the Pilgrims tasted their first cranberries in their Plymouth colony! Until 1816, cranberries were a thoroughly wild food; something gathered, not grown. But the discovery that allowed us to cultivate cranberries – adding a thick layer of sand on the soil where they grow – is now creating trouble in cranberry country. As it turns out, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires the same sort of sand as cranberries.

Nodji VanWychen, a third-generation cranberry grower in Warrens, WI, explains that cranberries require three elements to grow well: acidic peat soil topped with six to 10 inches of sand, and a reliable source of water. Although growers refer to their cranberry fields as “bogs” or “marshes,” the fields are not flooded yearround. Growers only flood their marshes during the harvest and again during the winter.

Massachusetts used to dominate cranberry production, but Wisconsin has taken over in recent decades, now producing 60 percent of the world’s cranberries. “We have been the number-one state in the nation for 18 consecutive years,” VanWychen says proudly. “And it is the number-one fruit crop in the state of Wisconsin. So it’s big business to the state, not only with the value of the crop but the amount of jobs that are developed… It’s a real economic gain to the areas where cranberries are grown.”

VanWychen’s marsh is located in Monroe County, home to the largest number of cranberry growers in Wisconsin. But in the last few years, the sand that makes the area right for cranberries has attracted a number of sand mining companies, eager to supply sand to the fracking industry.

Fracking is a controversial method of mining natural gas by pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to break up rock formations and release the natural gas trapped within them. Sand is essential to keep the fissures in the rocks open and to allow the natural gas to escape. Specifically, fracking requires “frac sand,” sand made of round, strong granules of nearly pure quartz – exactly the kind of sand found throughout a large portion of Wisconsin.

Currently, four sand mines and one processing plant are already operating in Monroe County, with three more mines in development and two more proposed. Several mines span hundreds of acres, and the largest site, a mine and processing plant in Tunnel City, sits on over 1,000 acres.

Sand mining is such big business, according to Monroe County dairy farmer Joel Greeno, that mining companies will pay $25,000 per acre for land that would normally sell for $3,000 per acre. His family has farmed in this area since 1872 and he worries that their time is almost up. His cousin recently turned down an offer to sell his farm to a sand mining company for $2 million. “At what point will he stop saying no and sell the family farm as a sand mine?” Greeno wonders.

A sand mine has moved in near a farm that used to belong to Greeno’s grandfather. The mines will dig 400 to 500 deep holes as they mine sand over the next few decades. “That’s gonna be a lot of tons of Wisconsin missing,” Greeno says. He worries for the future of the area’s cranberry marshes: “How long does the water stay in the cranberry marshes before it migrates into an open sand mine?”

Other complaints about the sand mines include increased truck traffic, noise and glaring lights, destruction of Wisconsin’s bucolic rural scenery, and most seriously, air and water pollution. The silica dust particles that blow around the sand mines have been linked to cancer in occupational settings.

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