The Enviro Disaster You Know Nothing About: The Eco-Devastating Quest for "Frac Sand" in Rural America
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So in November 2011, Jamie Gregar and ten other citizens sent a 35-page petition to the DNR. The petitioners asked the agency to declare respirable crystalline silica a hazardous substance and to monitor it, using a public health protection level set by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The petition relies on studies, including one by the DNR itself, which acknowledge the risk of airborne silica from frac-sand mines for those who live nearby.
The DNR denied the petition, claiming among other things that -- contrary to its own study’s findings -- current standards are adequate. One of the petition’s signatories, Ron Koshoshek, wasn’t surprised. For 16 years he was a member of, and for nine years chaired, Wisconsin’s Public Intervenor Citizens Advisory Committee. Created in 1967, its role was to intercede on behalf of the environment, should tensions grow between the DNR’s two roles: environmental protector and corporate licensor. “The DNR,” he says, “is now a permitting agency for development and exploitation of resources.”
In 2010, Cathy Stepp, a confirmed anti-environmentalist who had previously railed against the DNR, belittling it as "anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes," was appointed to head the agency by now-embattled Governor Scott Walker who explained: “I wanted someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality.”
As for Jamie Gregar, her dreams have been dashed and she’s determined to leave her home. “At this point,” she says, “I don’t think there’s a price we wouldn’t accept.”
Frac-Sand vs. Food
Brian Norberg and his family in Prairie Farm, 137 miles northwest of Tunnel City, paid the ultimate price: he died while trying to mobilize the community against Procore, a subsidiary of the multinational oil and gas corporation Sanjel. The American flag that flies in front of the Norbergs’ house flanks a placard with a large, golden NORBERG, over which pheasants fly against a blue sky. It’s meant to represent the 1,500 acres the family has farmed for a century.
“When you start talking about industrial mining, to us, you’re violating the land,” Brian’s widow, Lisa, told me one March afternoon over lunch. She and other members of the family, as well as a friend, had gathered to describe Prairie Farm’s battle with the frac-sanders. “The family has had a really hard time accepting the fact that what we consider a beautiful way to live could be destroyed by big industry.”
Their fight against Procore started in April 2011: Sandy, a lifelong friend and neighbor, arrived with sand samples drillers had excavated from her land, and began enthusiastically describing the benefits of frac-sand mining. “Brian listened for a few minutes,” Lisa recalls. “Then he told her [that]… she and her sand vials could get the heck -- that’s a much nicer word than what he used -- off the farm. Sandy was hoping we would also be excited about jumping on the bandwagon. Brian informed her that our land would be used for the purpose God intended, farming.”
Brian quickly enlisted family and neighbors in an organizing effort against the company. In June 2011, Procore filed a reclamation plan -- the first step in the permitting process -- with the county’s land and water conservation department. Brian rushed to the county office to request a public hearing, but returned dejected and depressed. “He felt completely defeated that he could not protect the community from them moving in and destroying our lives,” recalls Lisa.
He died of a heart attack less than a day later at the age of 52. The family is convinced his death was a result of the stress caused by the conflict. That stress is certainly all too real. The frac-sand companies, says family friend Donna Goodlaxson, echoing many others I interviewed for this story, “go from community to community. And one of the things they try to do is pit people in the community against each other.”