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The Enviro Disaster You Know Nothing About: The Eco-Devastating Quest for "Frac Sand" in Rural America

Midwestern rural communities are being devastated by energy companies searching for a form of sand to use in their destructive fracking operations elsewhere in rural America.

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Instead of backing off, the Norbergs and other Prairie Farm residents continued Brian’s efforts. At an August 2011 public hearing, the town’s residents directly addressed Procore’s representatives. “What people had to say there was so powerful,” Goodlaxson remembers. “Those guys were blown out of their chairs. They weren’t prepared for us.”

“I think people insinuate that we’re little farmers in a little community and everyone’s an ignorant buffoon,” added Sue Glaser, domestic partner of Brian’s brother Wayne. “They found out in a real short time there was a lot of education behind this.”

“About 80% of the neighborhood was not happy about the potential change to our area,” Lisa adds. “But very few of us knew anything about this industry at [that] time.” To that end, Wisconsin’s Farmers’ Union and its Towns Association organized a day-long conference in December 2011 to help people “deal with this new industry.”

Meanwhile, other towns, alarmed by the explosion of frac-sand mining, were beginning to pass licensing ordinances to regulate the industry. In Wisconsin, counties can challenge zoning but not licensing ordinances, which fall under town police powers.  These, according to Wisconsin law, cannot be overruled by counties or the state. Becky Glass, a Prairie Farm resident and an organizer with Labor Network for Sustainability, calls Wisconsin’s town police powers “the strongest tools towns have to fight or regulate frac-sand mining.” Consider them so many slingshots employed against the corporate Goliaths.

In April 2012, Prairie Farm’s three-man board voted 2 to 1 to pass such an ordinance to regulate any future mining effort in the town. No, such moves won’t stop frac-sand mining in Wisconsin, but they may at least mitigate its harm. Procore finally pulled out because of the resistance, says Glass, adding that the company has since returned with different personnel to try opening a mine near where she lives.

“It takes 1.2 acres per person per year to feed every person in this country,” says Lisa Norberg. “And the little township that I live in, we have 9,000 acres that are for farm use. So if we just close our eyes and bend over and let the mining companies come in, we’ll have thousands of people we can’t feed.”

Food or frac-sand: it’s a decision of vital importance across the country, but one most Americans don’t even realize is being made -- largely by multinational corporations and dwindling numbers of yeoman farmers in what some in this country would call “the real America.”  Most of us know nothing about these choices, but if the mining corporations have their way, we will soon enough -- when we check out prices at the supermarket or grocery store. We’ll know it too, as global climate change continues to turn Wisconsin winters balmy and supercharge wild weather across the country.

While bucolic landscapes disappear, aquifers are fouled, and countless farms across rural Wisconsin morph into industrial wastelands, Lisa’s sons continue to work the Norberg’s land, just as their father once did. So does Brian’s nephew, 32-year-old Matthew, who took me on a jolting ride across his fields. The next time I’m in town, he assured me, we’ll visit places in the hills where water feeds into springs. Yes, you can drink the water there. It’s still the purest imaginable. Under the circumstances, though, no one knows for how long.

Ellen Cantarow has reported on the Middle East since 1979.

 
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