A Report from Wisconsin's Sand Counties

In late May, I traveled to western Wisconsin’s Chippewa and Barron counties to see frac sand mining and processing sites firsthand. I particularly wanted to see the EOG processing plant in Chippewa Falls — one of the largest of its kind in existence — because last year, a company called Minnesota Proppant proposed an even larger plant for Saint Charles, here in Minnesota's Winona County.

EOG (formerly known as Enron Oil and Gas) is a vertically integrated corporation — they own frac sand mines to feed their plant, and they ship the sand by rail to their oil or gas fracking fields elsewhere in the country. In the few years since EOG’s plant was built, the Chippewa Falls area has become a hub of frac sand mining and processing, and I took the trip to see for myself the impacts this activity has on communities.

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It was a real eye-opener.

Pat Popple, who has been very active in fighting the frac sand industry in the region, was my tour guide. Popple lives in Chippewa Falls, near the EOG frac sand processing plant, and she took me to see the plant first, from all sides. It sits on 105 acres, and it’s huge. There was constant noise from the plant’s operations and it was easily audible from at least 1,500 feet away. From a little bit closer, there was also frequent noise from the unit trains moving around — EOG owns 900 rail cars to ship sand.

The frac sand industry came to Chippewa Falls five years ago, in May 2008. The plant site was quietly annexed into the city and rezoned before most people knew anything about it, and by the time the permitting process was underway, it was essentially too late for citizens to do anything to stop it. The mayor of Chippewa Falls and the Economic Development Authority were in favor of the plant. At that time, it was owned by a company called Canadian Sand and Proppant; EOG took over in 2010.

At the same time in 2008, Canadian Sand and Proppant started the first frac sand mine in Chippewa County. EOG now owns that mine and another in Chippewa County to feed their plant, and Popple says they also take sand from another mine in Wisconsin’s Dunn County.

Next, we drove north to the village of New Auburn. We passed by four other frac sand processing plants along a five-mile stretch of railroad, in and north of the village. They were smaller than EOG’s plant, but still major industrial operations. I had no idea there were so many, so close. Each is owned by a separate company and fed, as I understand it, by mines owned by those companies. There was a constant stream of trucks in New Auburn and sand was tracked all over the roads. There was also spilled sand all over the railroad. In other words, there was sand everywhere.

It made Minnesota Proppant's promises to keep things completely enclosed at their proposed Saint Charles plant and prevent sand from getting out into the community seem even more ridiculous than they had already sounded.

We then drove to the townships of Auburn and Cooks Valley, a rural area west of Bloomer in Chippewa County. There, all within a few miles of each other, I saw three of the mines that many people have seen in Jim Tittle's aerial photos. The photos do not prepare one for what these things look like in person. They are literally taking down the hills.

The contrast with the beautiful surrounding landscape of farms and wooded hills is completely surreal. Each of these mines is permitted to be around 200 acres in size, although one has already been granted an expansion of another 275 acres. Like at the EOG plant, the noise of mining was constant and audible from a couple of thousand feet away. There were houses much closer than that.

My overwhelming impressions from the trip were constant noise, constant trucks and sand everywhere. I saw no evidence of any meaningful measures to control fugitive dust (including harmful crystalline silica particles) from the mines, plants, trucks or trains.

Back home in Winona County, the people of Saint Charles and the surrounding area successfully worked for over a year to stop the Minnesota Proppant plant from being built. But the corporate interests behind the frac sand industry still want to take over southeastern Minnesota for sand mining, processing and transportation. Much more hard work and vigilance will be needed to stop them. What I saw in Wisconsin made me even more certain that this industry is absolutely wrong for our rural communities.

Johanna Rupprecht is a Land Stewardship Project organizer based in the southeast Minnesota community of Lewiston. She can be reached at 507-523-3366 or jrupprecht@landstewardshipproject.org.