The Enviro Disaster You Know Nothing About: The Eco-Devastating Quest for "Frac Sand" in Rural America
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There was also no need for jumping the hurdles zoning laws sometimes erect. Like many Wisconsin towns where a culture of diehard individualism sees zoning as an assault on personal freedom, Greenfield and all its municipalities, including Tunnel City, are unzoned. This allowed the corporation to make deals with individual landowners. For the 8.5 acres where Letha Webster and her husband Gene lived for 56 years, assessed in 2010 at $147,500, Unimin paid $330,000. Overall, between late May and July 2011, it paid $5.3 million for 436 acres with a market value of about $1.1 million.
There was no time for public education about the potential negative possibilities of frac-sand mining: the destruction of the hills, the decline in property values, the danger of silicosis (once considered a strictly occupational lung disease) from blowing silica dust, contamination of ground water from the chemicals used in the processing plants, the blaze of lights all night long, noise from hundreds of train cars, houses shaken by blasting. Ron Koshoshek, a leading environmentalist who works with Wisconsin’s powerful Towns Association to educate townships about the industry, says that “frac-sand mining will virtually end all residential development in rural townships.” The result will be “a large-scale net loss of tax dollars to towns, increasing taxes for those who remain.”
Frac-sand corporations count on a combination of naïveté, trust, and incomprehension in rural hamlets that previously dealt with companies no larger than Wisconsin’s local sand and gravel industries. Before 2008, town boards had never handled anything beyond road maintenance and other basic municipal issues. Today, multinational corporations use their considerable resources to steamroll local councils and win sweetheart deals. That’s how the residents of Tunnel City got taken to the cleaners.
On July 6, 2011, a Unimin representative ran the first public forum about frac-sand mining in the village. Other heavily attended and often heated community meetings followed, but given the cascades of cash, the town board chairman’s failure to take a stand against the mining corporation, and Unimin’s aggressiveness, tiny Tunnel City was a David without a slingshot.
Local citizens did manage to get the corporation to agree to give the town $250,000 for the first two million tons mined annually, $50,000 more than its original offer. In exchange, the township agreed that any ordinance it might pass in the future to restrict mining wouldn’t apply to Unimin. Multiply the two million tons of frac-sand tonnage Unimin expects to mine annually starting in 2013 by the $300 a ton the industry makes and you’ll find that the township only gets .0004% of what the company will gross.
For the Gregars, it’s been a nightmare. Unimin has refused five times to buy their land and no one else wants to live near a sand mine. What weighs most heavily on the couple is the possibility that their children will get silicosis from long-term exposure to dust from the mine sites. “We don’t want our kids to be lab rats for frac-sand mining companies,” says Jamie.
Drew Bradley, Unimin’s senior vice president of operations, waves such fears aside. “I think [citizens] are blowing it out of proportion,” he told a local publication. “There are plenty of silica mines sited close to communities. There have been no concerns exposed there.”
That’s cold comfort to the Gregars. Crystalline silica is a known carcinogen and the cause of silicosis, an irreversible, incurable disease. None of the very few rules applied to sand mining by the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) limit how much silica gets into the air outside of mines. That’s the main concern of those living near the facilities.