Wisconsin sand rush: Open pit mining races ahead with help of “hush money”


“It’s hush money and in my opinion, it’s undermining the whole democratic process. They’re buying votes. They’re buying our votes for us to go in and say we like them, because they have to have the landowners agree to have them in here. So they’re buying people and they’re dividing our community,” said Lisa Pelnar from the Town of Menomonie.

This quote comes from a Dunn County landowner who spoke to WQOW TV about a legal agreement that Texas sand company Vista Sand asked her to sign in exchange for almost $38,000 and her support for a sand mine project.

Sand companies are already paying high prices for farms and homes in areas of Wisconsin where the sand under the ground is of a consistency perfect to assist in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas otherwise known as “fracking”.
In Monroe County: “Eighty-four-year-old Letha Webster’s voice briefly cracks when she talks about leaving the town she and her husband have called home for 56 years. But when a mining company offered twice its assessed value, she couldn’t say no.”

Webster sold her 8.5 acres and home for $330,000. It’s part of 436 acres that a company called Unimin pad $5.3 million for. The market value for that land is a little less than $1.1 million. – source

I’m going to wager that Unimin paid Gene Prell of Tunnel City no hush money. At a Town of Greenfield Meeting in February, when an employee of Unimin discussed borings that show sand as deep as 343 or 347 feet Gen Perell responded sharply with concerns for the area’s water:
“Unimin might start out with an open pit mine and everything would be fine, but if they start mining below the water table–and you know that the water table is probably no more than 30 feet below the tracks at the mine site–I would think that it would have a significant impact on the water table. That could impact the water table at Spring Bank, no matter how much water they pump from Tomah. The end result could be devastating. Unimin will not divulge their plans and once they get their permits they will essentially be free to do whatever they please within certain few limits for scores of years and we will not be able to do anything about it. ”

A Dunn County resident describes what’s going on and you can see a beautiful hill cut in half behind him (1 min. 39 seconds):

A woman drives by a large sand plant to show you the constant flow of dust off of the site (42 seconds):

Admittedly, I don’t play a scientist on this blog or on TV or in reality. However when I read the phrase “respirable quartz” in the same article that says, “the state was not now doing any of its own monitoring of air quality impacts directly related to sand mining and processing” annnnd that article is dated June 14, 2012…..

One of Walker’s favorite phrases, “We’re broke”, applies to budgeting for the folks that would monitor air quality around 1,000 acre or so open pit mines where sand is pounded and rendered “respirable”. So it is that a Chippewa citizens group has done its own monitoring

“That monitoring effort found that on 51 percent of the 57 sampling days, samples taken about a mile from EOG Resources Chippewa Falls facility (which is located within city limits and less than one-half mile from a child care center and near a hospital) exceeded EPA’s PM 2.5 standard.”-scienceblogs.com

Frankly, those citizens aren’t scientists either. If neither town, county, nor state will step in with the power of science, perhaps one might turn to the federal government. The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety or NIOHS will when it gets around to it and apparently only out of concern for the employees at sand mine sites.

The EPA? It’s a bit complicated. Don’t hold your breath.

Kathleen Vinehout describes the state of sand mining in Wisconsin (5 minutes 39 seconds):

Senator Vinehout says that there are roughly 60 mines and 34 processing plants in some state of construction or development in the state. Her senate district in the Northwest “has a great big red bulls eye on it for the oil and natural gas industry”. She says sand mines in the area are 1,000 acres with most being open pit and some underground such as a 900 acre underground mine under the town and village of Maiden Rock. One of the biggest complaints she receives – and she hears about sand mining more than any other issue – is that people never knew that a mine was coming into their neighborhood. She found out about the pit coming across the street from her farm when a neighbor called.

Senator Vinehout says sand mines are regulated as if they were little gravel pits and right now those are an “accepted use” on Wisconsin agricultural land. Thus, a sand mine is all-systems-go no matter the size in many areas of Wisconsin where zoning is non-existent to lax. She’s proposed 1 bill to better inform people about incoming mines and 1 bill that would make sand mines a “conditional use” to trip off a guaranteed public meeting. Given the TeaPublican majority in the state legislature and the governor, I will not even double-check my facts before I tell you that her bills failed to pass.

Apparently several counties have also come to expect nothing from the state legislature. For example, Buffalo County Wisconsin’s Board ordered a 7-month moratorium on new or expanding frac sand mining operations in March. Meanwhile in the same month the Governor and his ilk in the legislature (they don’t call this a “rush” for nothin’) popped out SB 504 which LIMITS the authority of a *local municipality* to enact a development moratorium.*

I’m a bit foggy on this: Why didn’t Walker also go after county moratoriums? Perhaps it is because county moratoriums rest on shaky legal ground?: “Counties, however, have no express statutory authorization to impose an interim control ordinance. The absence of express enabling authority does not mean that counties cannot impose moratoria. What it does mean is that the authority for counties to impose moratoria is not clear.” –source

Environmental reporter Ron Seely called Wisconsin “one of the nation’s major providers of frac sand”. He says “Hotspots for sand mines have been mostly in west central Wisconsin such as Chippewa, La Crosse and Monroe counties. But recently, with demand for the sand at an all-time high, mining companies have been making inquiries in southern counties such as Columbia and Crawford.” -source

The reason that beautiful swaths of farmland and hills are being dug up for something as dull as sand is that not just any sand will do to assist in fracking. The sand particles used in fracking must be very round, strong, and of almost pure quartz. Drillers for natural gas use a mix of toxic chemicals and high pressure to increase and create fissures in between rocks under the earth where pockets of gas rest. A sand is then typcially used as a “proppant” meaning that it props open the fissures leaving them open once the pressure is reduced. The deeper the well, the more important the strength of the proppant material is.

Wisconsin’s DNR might have done something to better balance the interests of business and the protection of our natural resources if perhaps this were, oh — let us say “1990”.

But at this juncture there is not a chance the DNR is doing anything about it. Our state’s policeman for the earth, air, and water isn’t even writing tickets: “DNR case referrals to the Department of Justice dropped from 65 to 21, a 67 percent reduction; enforcement conferences dropped from 280 to 196, a 30 percent reduction; and notices of violations dropped from 516 to 233, a 55 percent reduction, in 2011 compared to the prior 11-year average”-source

This is part of what Walker meant when he said Wisconsin was “Open for Business”.

Footnote and challenge:
The attempted recalls of Scott Walker and his allies has been characterized repeatedly as simply a response to his attack on unions. Initially when I saw the media sum Wisconsin’s political firestorm into a tidy little union box and tie it with a ribbon, I would bang my head against the wall for a time. However a woman can take only so many headaches. Eventually I could only respond with a snarl of displeasure and move on.

Since the recalls are over some of us have a little extra time on our hands. I ask that sort of person to come back here with an example of a mainstream article published from an outlet based in Wisconsin between February 1, 2011 and June 5, 2012 that you think makes it clear what the full width, breadth, and depth of Walker’s agenda actually is. I really hope that at least 1 such article came out and I missed it because I was simply too busy banging my head against the wall.

Hydraulic fracturing – wikipedia

Dunn County Sand site: A wealth of local info on sand mining in WI.

Gasland the Movie

ProPublica – Gas Drilling: The Story So Far

Former DNR secretary critical of state’s weakened environmental enforcement — Dated June 15, 2012

Trouble at the DNR – a web report dated 1998

Wisconsin sand miners are destroying the rare Karner Blue butterfly

A silly but educational song about fracking.

*The bill was introduced by State Senator Frank “give the teachers guns” Lasee and Representative Jim Steineke.


  6 comments for “Wisconsin sand rush: Open pit mining races ahead with help of “hush money”

  1. Charlotte
    August 19, 2014 at 5:54 am

    Vista Sands President featured in the above video is serving prison time for sexual assault of a minor!! That’s been the hold up with the Glenwood City Mine. We could still change our future!! Help us!!! We need media!

  2. mary sanderson
    September 14, 2012 at 2:12 am

    thank you Blue Cheddar!!! how do you do it?

    I want to know something and there you are!!!

  3. The Wall
    June 25, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Corporations buying favoritism in politicians is how you lose your life, and how you lose your home, and how your local environment is brought to ruin. Look at mountaintop coal mining, not just at the damage to the environment, but the influence in local law enforcement and politics. This is what Wisconsin would have to look forward to if this influence attempt is rewarded in any way.

    The government of Wisconsin began a program of selling legislative influence and corrupted our political system beyond any foreseeable remedy.

    This is horribly wrong and completely unacceptable campaign is being condoned and endorsed by the Administration of Temporary Governor Scott Walker.

  4. Rollie
    June 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    I still believe that the micro quakes in Clintonville were caused by the Earth rebounding from the loss of millions of tons of sand in the area,

    • Jenny Gutsmiedl
      April 26, 2014 at 7:49 am

      did they ever give an official explanation of those earthquakes or did they just let everyone kinda forget about it??

  5. Betsy Wilcox
    June 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    On February 17 I placed a call to Andrew Davis (Director of External Communications for Scott Walker) about the “shovel ready” ten sites per year @ 50 acres or more for the next three years and exactly who identified the sites, what type of industry he hopes to attract, and who is doing the fast-track approvals. I saw no public comment on this. Walker is intent on ruining our lands, our air, and our water. The article was published on February 14, 2012 in PolitiScoop and was entitled Ready, Set, Destroy – Walker Looks to Violate Treaties.

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