The frac sand “wash plant” at a Blair, Wis., frac sand mine.
The frac sand “wash plant” at a Blair, Wis., frac sand mine.

"There are a very large number of people opposed to this," Kevin Lien said. Lien, who serves as director of the Trempealeau County Department of Land Management, was meeting with members of the Houston County Frac Sand Study Committee in Blair, Wis. The date was June 20.

This is the second in a three-part series on frac sand mining, and what large-scale mining could mean for Houston County.

Potential problems are the topic for this week. In a future issue of the Spring Grove Herald the final installment will address zoning.

Property rights raised

"Our original non-metallic mining ordinance dates from 1996," Lien said.

"We have not had a moratorium. The public has asked for it every month, and my board decided that not to go down that road. They feel we somewhat have things under control."

Later, Lien added, "There are property-rights issues... A few of my board members have basically said, 'the adverse effects to a few are for the good of the many.'"

Opponents of industrial-scale sand mining have raised many issues including noise, dust, runoff, water well depletion, water well contamination, insufficient setbacks, declines in residential values, roadway wear and tear, hazardous heavy truck traffic, reclamation (or lack of) and aesthetics.

"There's no skeletons, no dead bodies," Todd Murchison of Preferred Sands said as he led the Houston County group into his Blair mine.

Erosion can be addressed

When asked about erosion problems, he switched metaphors and offered to show committee members 'the white elephant' that has attracted attention to the facility.

Taking the committee to an open hilltop near the pit, Murchison pointed to freshly-seeded reclamation sand and clay residue left over from the washing and screening plants.

"We purchased a site where somebody put the front lawn on the garden," he said, "In a month, they moved thousands of yards of material... When it comes to something like this, transparency with the community is huge."

"I'm not saying that the original mine owner necessarily did things in a hurry, but best practices weren't followed.

"We've spent a lot of time since we acquired the property last December trying to correct these issues. We also have some air compliance issues that we are addressing."

Heavy spring rains washed a tumult of sandy material off of the artificially built-up hill causing flooding in a home below.

Air monitoring is important

Preferred Sand Health and Safety Manager Matthew Navea said that the mine has three air particulate monitors in continuous operation, but they can't differentiate between a grain of pollen (for instance) and a tiny bit of silica.

Where silica dust is concerned, the smaller the mote, the more dangerous it becomes to employees.

"In particular, we are monitoring for 10 microns or less (and) 7.5 microns or less," he said.

Preferred routinely wets down exposed areas and seeds down other spots to prevent dust and erosion problems, Navea stated.

At the rail-car loader, Murchison pointed to the spout, adding, "We may have to enclose this entire area for dust collection."

Zoning concerns seen

Lien said that oftentimes mines are not popular with neighbors. "We have limited mining to our agricultural districts, where they require a conditional use permit. At a re-zoning hearing last month a mine operator was asking to re-classify a Res-8 (eight homes per 40 acres) site to agricultural so that mining could occur.

"We had at least 50 people show up, plus about 25 written comments and 25 phone testimonials to read into the record.

"There were only two people who came out in favor of mining. The re-zone was denied."

"Some homeowners say that their property is worth less when a mine moves in next door. The industry has countered that argument, in some cases buying additional land at a higher rate. It's a no-win situation, but I can see both sides of it."

Well and water concerns?

High-capacity wells are used to feed sand wash plants, but some mines re-circulate a high percentage of their wash water, according to industry officials.

"Initially, you have to have water to get the system charged," Preferred Sands Plant Manger Jason Featherly said.

"Once it's charged, you're drawing maybe eight to 10 percent new water and the rest is all re-circulated."

"We have a 900-gallon per-minute well that's running 10% of the time when we're operating," Murchison said.

"It's certainly less than what a high-capacity well would draw for a big sprinkler wheel."

Opponents note that in some instances, high-cap wells have dried up springs and shallower private wells in vulnerable areas.

The effect of a large draw on the aquifer must be offset by natural recharge or else the water table will decline, authorities state.

Chemicals are part of process

Flocculants are used to clump together clay and silt particles so that wash water can be cleaned and recycled.

Essentially it's the same as adding clarifier to a swimming pool so that the filter can remove tiny particles; but the chemicals used by mining companies are also the subject of controversy.

According to scientists, when it is exposed to ultraviolet radiation (sunlight) for a sufficient amount of time, polyacrylamide (a common flocculant) can turn into acrylamide.

Acrylamide is said to be a neurotoxin and carcinogen, and according to a Wisconsin DNR report on frac sand mining the EPA limit for acrylamide in "public drinking water" is zero (see online at

The issue is where the chemicals end up, and whether or not they could become dangerous.

"It (the flocculant) adheres to those clay particles," Murchison said. "You take that out and spread it in the sun, and when that 'cake' dries, it dissipates. There's no health issue at all. Wastewater treatment plants and the construction industry use the same chemicals."

Preferred Sands in Blair is only removing material to within about 100 feet of the water table. A great deal of sandstone lies below where mining will stop.

Mines utilizing chemicals in sensitive (karst) areas of Southeastern Minnesota could potentially threaten aquifers with chemical infiltration, opponents claim.

Other concerns discussed

Other issues from those advocating strict permitting include habitat destruction which could affect endangered species, "aesthetics," referring to the landscape left behind after mining, the destruction of cultural resources such as archeological sites, and a negative effect on tourism.

Editor's note: watch next week's Herald for the third part of this series on frac sand mining pros and cons.