Why Fracking May Ruin Your Thanksgiving
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
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.
Sand mining has also poisoned community relations in the small Wisconsin towns that produce the cranberries Americans enjoy on Thanksgiving. Greeno accuses the sand mines of “pitting neighbor against neighbor and friends against friends.” He cites a farmer who sold his farm to a nearby cranberry grower because he did not want the sand mines to have it. But unbeknownst to him, the cranberry grower had already done a deal with a sand mine behind his back, and the land went to the sand mine anyway.
“All the little townships up there, the town boards are fighting, and the residents are mad,” says Greeno. “The sand mines come in then and write the town boards checks for a couple hundred thousand.” For example, a blog that opposes the Tunnel City mine accuses the mining company Unimin of paying more than $2 million for land owned by the town chair’s relatives. The progressive blog Blue Cheddar quotes a Wisconsin resident who called a payment from a sand mining company “hush money.”
With the quick rise of Wisconsin’s frack sand boom, both regulators and residents were taken by surprise. Regulations designed for the enormous open-pit mines were not in place when the mining companies showed up, and the Department of Natural Resources simply lacks the staff to deal with the silica dust particles from the new mines. According to Greeno, “A lot of the sand mines were already here buying land before anybody really knew what was going on.” Residents did not have time to form an opposition before the mines came into their towns.
But now, residents are starting to get organized. The town of Grant just passed a six-month moratorium on sand mines to hold off a proposed 800- to 1,200-acre sand mine by the corporation U.S. Silica. The town of Angelo also passed a six-month moratorium, but that is coming to an end on December 31 and the town has not yet decided on its way forward.
At the same time, the sand mining industry is organizing, forming the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association (WISA), a lobbying and public relations group that says it will “self-regulate” its members. "Self-regulation” is a common corporate tactic to stave off government regulation. Unlike government regulation, corporate self-regulation is not enforceable.
The battle for land and sand in Wisconsin’s cranberry country will continue to rage on for several Thanksgivings to come, most likely. And the fight ought to remind us of what we are most thankful for this time of year: not cranberries, but loving families and healthy, happy communities that are free of the fighting and backstabbing that Wisconsin’s sand mining boom has spawned.