What Happens in the Wake of Frac Sand’s Boom and Bust?

Overhead view of a frac sand mining facility with train tracks, large sand piles, and a settling pond

This episode about frac sand mining in Wisconsin’s Driftless region is the fourth piece in the series Ground Truths: Stories from Wisconsin’s Frontlines of Environmental Action. This six-episode podcast series highlights environmental justice issues across the diverse communities and landscapes of Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to the Northwoods. The series is supported in part by a grant from Wisconsin Humanities, with funds from the National Endowment for the HumanitiesSeries editors: Carly Griffith (lead), Clare Sullivan (lead), Ben Iuliano, Justyn Huckleberry, Marisa Lanker, and Juniper Lewis.

Map of Wisconsin with counties outlined in gray and counties with frac sand mining shaded green
Wisconsin state map. Counties with frac sand mining are highlighted in green. Map design by Carly Griffith.

Wisconsin is rich in a key raw material for the hydraulic fracturing industry: good sand. Frac sand mining, or silica sand mining, expanded rapidly in rural Wisconsin in the early 2000s. Some rural residents embraced the new jobs and income, while others were concerned about negative economic, ecological, and health impacts and organized to voice their opposition. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry stalled. Now that gas prices are increasing, advocates are concerned about the revival of mining. 

In this podcast, we explore the consequences for Wisconsin’s communities and landscapes that are rich in “good sand.” A lack of publicly available data and information on frac sand mining impacts has led communities and organizations to mobilize to meet this knowledge gap and advocate for their health, their communities, and the environment. We speak with Dr. Ted Auch, Tim Jacobson, Dr. Crispin Pierce, Pat Popple, and Dr. Dwight Swenson about frac sand mining in Wisconsin.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Clare Sullivan: Can you talk about the geographies of frac sand mining in Wisconsin?

Tim Jacobson: Frac sand mining is heavily concentrated in western and southwestern Wisconsin. It’s kind of strange, but western Wisconsin became the center of the universe for frac sand mining. It just so happens that the sandstone bedrock that we have in this part of Wisconsin is not only incredibly well-suited to being used as a proppant in the oil and gas industry but it’s also readily accessible because of the topography here.

We’re in a region called the Driftless Area, which is an unglaciated area—a kind of island where the continental glaciers of the last Ice Age did not overrun the landscape. It’s an older landscape that’s been shaped by erosional processes over a much longer period of time than surrounding parts of the Upper Midwest. We have rugged bluffs with valleys that have been carved out through millions of years of erosion. That has made it easier for these mining companies to access the strata of sandstone bedrock that they seek for grading frac sand.

A bluff with evergreen trees surrounded by a misty field.
A bluff in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Photo by Tim Jacobson, 2020.

Clare Sullivan: What is frac sand? And why is this industry so important?

Ted Auch: The unconventional oil and gas industry (hydraulic fracking) requires a tremendous amount of sand to do what they do. The sand is involved in the actual fracking process. Basically, you have a two-step process: first, there’s the drilling of the well and the drilling of the lateral component of the well. The second stage is the actual fracking stage. They have established the pipes, they’ve drilled the hole, they’ve taken out all the rocks and stuff. Now they fill it in with water, chemicals, and—to the point of this conversation—sand. Then they do what they call perforating, where they have these little holes throughout the lateral, and they shove the water, sand, and chemicals in at tremendous pressures and volumes to perforate the shale seam. Then they fill in that void with sand because it’s porous, and they can pull the gas through that porous medium.

As to the role of Wisconsin in the frac sand mining industry, for many years, it was one of the main producers of frac sand, silica sand, in the country. When the oil and gas sector is really revving and the price is good, they can afford to use high-quality sand that comes from the glaciated area of Wisconsin. When the price plummets, the oil and gas sector tends to try to find cheaper sources of sand, like Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri. The reason that the stuff is good in Wisconsin is that it’s very round, and it’s devoid of a lot of the impurities (silts, clays) that they don’t want.

Clare Sullivan: Tell us a bit about FracTracker Alliance—how you help communities understand this complicated industry and how that helps them organize around it.

People have learned to do research, have learned to question what goes on, and have realized that we have been sold a bill of goods in many respects regarding the entire industry.

Ted Auch: The state agencies and the counties were not keeping up with the pace of development. I always say that the industry was moving at light speed in a digital age, and the states and the counties were moving at a snail’s pace in an analog age. That discrepancy just kept growing and growing. We thought: We need to try to help balance the playing field from a data standpoint. What data sets do you need at your township meetings or your county council meetings?

We started working on generating that data. Our goal is to try to create those data sets and map that data, and then try to help the people who are in the shadow of all this to better convey to their neighbors, friends, and elected officials why they should be taking a harder look at this—not necessarily be opposed to it. But the serious questions don’t tend to be asked unless they’re pushed from the bottom up. We hope to help those people because that’s really our constituency, the people who live next to this stuff. Whether you like or don’t like oil and gas, it definitely has a very real toll on the people who live near it. They are, to my mind, sacrificed for the larger need of energy in this country.

Crispin Pierce: In the process of mining, processing, crushing, and transporting frac sand, particles are generated. Very fine particles get up into the air. These particles also include a component called crystalline silica, which is particularly toxic. Just like a dirty urban city, where we have a lot of car exhaust and industrial pollution, the same size particles, called PM2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers and smaller), can get into the deep lung.

Because the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was not requiring the mines to monitor these fine particles, we stepped in and filled an information gap. We put up monitors near large frac sand facilities in Wisconsin. We found that the measure of particulate matter around these frac sand mines was higher than the background levels in nearby DNR measuring stations.

We took it a step further to say that when we know how much of these fine particles are in the air, we can make some predictions about life expectancies. The difficult truth is that dirtier air interferes with lung function and with cardiac function. These particles are so small that they get in the bloodstream and travel to the kidney and the liver. We did an estimate of the loss of life. It turned out that people living near the two facilities that we studied the longest lose on the order of 35 to up to 249 days of their life expectancy because they’re breathing this slightly more polluted air.

Justyn Huckleberry: What are the impacts of these particles on adjacent communities? Or the geographies of this particle air pollution?

Crispin Pierce: This is what everybody wants to know: Am I going to be affected? Am I at greater risk? It’s difficult to answer because it depends on the topography, the wind, the precipitation, and even the cycles of the frac sand facility. In general, these effects are most acutely felt within a couple of kilometers of a frac sand facility.

Very large white piles of sand and some infrastructure surrounded by fields.
Silica sand piles in Auburn, Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2018.

Justyn Huckleberry: To better understand these health impacts, I spoke with Dr. Dwight Swenson, adjunct professor in the Plant and Earth Science department at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls and resident of Jackson County, whose life and family have been impacted by local sand mines.

Dwight Swenson: I currently live in Curran Township, which is located in Jackson County, Wisconsin, where we have approximately one-third of our total township acreage in three separate industrial sand mines. When we’re here, we make a decision: Should we be working outside or not? If we have to, then sometimes we have to use masks, particulate masks, or even a respirator if it’s exceptionally high. We have to make that judgment call on a daily basis.

My wife has been affected. She has respiratory distress and granulomas, which are a precursor to silicosis. She really suffers now as a consequence of being exposed to all of this respirable silica. Oftentimes if the levels are too high, she’ll just stay indoors. I’ve opted just this past year to relocate during the worst months, which, believe it or not, are the winter months. We get the highest readings in the winter. Now, we live out West during the winter months, where we have really good air quality.

Justyn Huckleberry: Communities are subject to impacts from frac sand facilities that not only shift with weather cycles but the volatility of oil and gas markets as well. I asked about the boom and bust cycles of gas production.

Crispin Pierce: Most mining cycles are boom and bust. If it’s fetching higher prices, then there’s going to be more interest in developing these really huge mines here in Wisconsin. One hundred million tons a year have been taken out, and we are starting to see the reappearance of mining in Wisconsin. It was dormant for several years during the COVID-19 pandemic and, of course, gas demand was lower as well. We’re starting to see the reactivation of mining facilities. It’s tied to the price of gas and oil, because the sand is used to extract more gas and oil.

Ted Auch: In Wisconsin, where there are mines out in the middle of nowhere and it was all trucked, those things shut down pretty quick. Whenever the price of gas and oil goes down, whether it’s the fracking industry or Exxon or Superior Silica Sands, what these companies end up doing is they go back to the shop. They increase efficiencies with regard to automation, and then they come back needing fewer people. Or they put the squeeze on the people and they say, We’ll come, we’ll bring you back, but you’re going to come back at 60 percent.

It’s a crazy bargain that these communities make, and the communities don’t really extract any concessions, whether it’s the county or the townships. As far as the volatility, it’s a total boom or bust. Anyone will tell you that when they’re mining like they were in Augusta, Wisconsin a couple years ago, the Amish folks around there, they couldn’t even be out on the roads because they had trucks flying all around, and then all of a sudden, it goes quiet.

Clare Sullivan: The mines and processing facilities are often of such large scale that they can reconfigure the land and alter groundwater movement. We asked Tim Jacobson about the range of ecological impacts.

Tim Jacobson: I think a lot of people assume that somebody is simply digging up loose sand. That is not what the process involves. There is no loose sand here. It’s solid sandstone bedrock. What mining companies have to do to obtain frac sand is strip all of the vegetation from the landscape. They remove layers of soil and other undesirable bedrock, which they refer to as “overburden.” They do that with heavy excavating equipment and explosives. Then, they use explosives to blast away at the rock faces and heavy equipment to move and crush solid bedrock into sand. They wash the sand using large quantities of groundwater and chemical flocculants and create massive storage or settling ponds.

Aerial view of a wetlands area with deep blue water making snake-like patterns through green vegetation and trees
Aerial view of a watershed in the Driftless Area. Photo by Tim Jacobson, 2020.

They generally pile the sand in massive piles. Some people refer to them as looking like the Pyramids of Giza. These huge piles of sand can cover dozens of acres. The piles sit there and cause fugitive dust. Toxic crystal and silica dust will be blown through the air and on to the neighboring properties. There are a range of negative environmental impacts from the frac sand mining process including air pollution, water pollution, depletion of aquifers and other hydrological effects, excessive noise, and nighttime light. It’s just an incredibly disruptive industrial process that occurs often right on the doorsteps of these rural homeowners who chose to live where they live because they were quiet, peaceful, beautiful rural areas.

Justyn Huckleberry: Part of the reason why there are so many impacts in frac sand mining is because of the lack of regulations in the industry. We spoke again with Dwight Swenson about his experience in his township and with Crispin Pierce about regulation and oversight.

Whether you like or don’t like oil and gas, it definitely has a very real toll on the people who live near it.

Dwight Swenson: Step one in the process was to have a county-level public hearing for a proposed approximately 1000-acre industrial sand mine in 2014. Step two is the reclamation permit. Step two in the mining processing is all-important because once they get that permit, they’re allowed to access all forms of resource extraction. The whole process unfortunately proved to be a rubber stamping process by the Wisconsin DNR and our county-level land conservation departments. Through this public hearing experience, I learned that the industrial sand mining company’s initial proposal plan promises would essentially be ignored, and there’d be just basically lip service–level oversight for the entire operation. I also learned that the DNR would transfer its regulatory responsibilities to the local county land conservation department. Those departments don’t have large staffs. They’re ill-equipped to manage something of the magnitude of these sand mine operations.

Crispin Pierce: The Wisconsin DNR, in my opinion, has not been very aggressive or taken a comprehensive and detailed approach. Their approach is not to require monitoring, particularly of these fine particles by frac sand mines. We’ve seen some frac sand applications where the DNR will require what’s called a fugitive dust plan. Fugitive dust is dust that is on the ground from truck traffic or particles blowing from piles across the frac sand facility. They can require things like wetting down the process or putting in a paved road as opposed to a dirt road. Those can be effective, but they need to be applied consistently. We need to be doing monitoring on-site to ensure that the public is protected.

Clare Sullivan: There have been successful challenges to the Wisconsin’s industrial frac sand mine permitting process. In 2017, the Ho-Chunk Nation and Midwest Environmental Advocates joined Clean Wisconsin to challenge a wetland fill permit issued by the DNR to a frac sand company called Meteor Timber. This permit would have allowed the company to establish a site on a pristine forested wetland in Monroe County. Legal proceedings went on for five years, but in April 2022, the state supreme court declined to hear the company’s lawsuit, upheld the permit challenge, and protected nearby communities and an area of irreplaceable white pine-red maple wetlands.

A red yard sign with the text "No Frac Sand Mining. Neighbors First!"
An anti-frac sand mining yard sign in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, 2018.

Justyn Huckleberry: The communities and local residents who have borne the brunt of the impacts of frac sand mining have also led activism to better understand and regulate the industry. I spoke with Pat Popple from Concerned Chippewa Citizens.

Pat Popple: People from the city of Chippewa Falls and the various towns that surround us have met every Sunday except for holidays at least 77 times at a local church to share research, brainstorm ideas, and pick up any needed supplies to keep building the base. We attended city and county meetings, encouraged voting, wore buttons and T-shirts, and met with other groups in Wisconsin and also other places that have been threatened and affected by the frac sand mining and distribution and hydraulic fracturing. One leader here took it upon himself to distribute yard signs. When they were destroyed or stolen, which happened quite a bit, they were immediately replaced. That created quite a stir.

When they first came here, the companies and even local officials tried to make people feel as though there was no problem with this industry. It is just sand, sand, sand, and it means jobs, jobs, jobs. When you really look at the problem, it’s more than that, including the destruction of our water and air quality, of lands. I think that many people have learned to do research, have learned to question what goes on, and have realized that we have been sold a bill of goods in many respects regarding the entire industry. My hope is that in the long haul, things will change and that people will wake up and listen, smell the coffee, so to speak, and go on to more sustainable forms of energy.

You can hear more about issues related to frac sand mining in the American Midwest in “Undermined – Voices from the front lines of frac sand mining,” an audio story presented by Public Lab and FracTracker Alliance with support from Save the Hills Alliance.

Featured image: Frac sand mine in Curran, Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2019. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Podcast music: “Weatherman” by Wolf Man Summit. Used with permission.

Dr. Ted Auch is the Great Lakes Program Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance. Website.

Tim Jacobson is an attorney focusing on environmental litigation at Fitzpatrick, Skemp, and Butler LLC in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In 2022, he was elected to the Environmental Section Board of Directors of the State Bar of Wisconsin. He has co-produced two regional Emmy Award–winning environmental documentaries, Decoding the Driftless and Mysteries of the Driftless. Website. Twitter.

Dr. Crispin Pierce is a professor of environmental public health at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is a Fulbright Scholar (Finland) and National Environmental Health Association Technical Advisor. His current work includes COVID prevention and air quality research. Website. Twitter.

Pat Popple is a retired teacher and school administrator who got caught up in the frac sand controversies in May of 2008. Leading the effort to form Concerned Chippewa Citizens and Save the Hills Alliance, Inc., she also began networking with environmental groups, individuals, and newly formed grassroots groups to find ways to resolve the threats posed to the public by frac sand mining.

Dr. Dwight Swenson is an experienced livestock and crop producer providing over 45 years of agricultural education in high schools, UW-Extension, Wisconsin Technical College (Chippewa Valley Technical College), and UW–River Falls. He currently serves as a UW Continuing Education adjunct professor teaching self-designed online course offerings.

We invite all of our readers and listeners (you!) to reflect on this topic and respond to the following questions:

Let us know what you think! We look forward to reading your response (50-500 words).