One Town Gingerly Steps into Silica Sand Mining

Sep 27, 2012

Towns and counties in western Wisconsin are scrambling to keep up with the demand for its silica sand. Some residents celebrate the jobs and commerce the mines bring; others worry about their environment and rural quality of life.

Western Wisconsin finds itself sitting on a prized commodity - silica sand. It fills the region's rolling landscape. It's also critical to fracking, the process industry uses to extract oil and natural gas from the ground in other parts of the country.

Jill Koenitzer and her dad Oscar Skoug on the family dairy farm in Sioux Creek.

The sand issue has created an uneasy balance for residents. On one end, is the promise of hundreds of new jobs and investment. On the other, are concerns about losing sweeping landscapes and farms – not to mention impacts on air and water.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence traveled to meet people sorting through the realities of their changing backyard. She began in the town of Sioux Creek.

The Skoug family as been dairy farming in rural Barron County since the 1880s.

"When my great great great grandfather came over from Norway."

That's Jill Skoug Koenitzer. Her brother is continuing the family tradition.

"His farm is up on top of this hill here and that hill is all frac sand; so he has had companies stopping and talking to him about purchasing," Koenitzer says.

A couple years ago "frac sand mining" meant nothing to this town. Now Koenitzer says most neighbors won't share opinions – including her brother. He had agreed to talk with me; but shortly before our appointment, he backed out. His sister struggles to sum up his view – why he would never sell to a mining company.

"Money is not worth well, and my brother has lived here his whole life; that it's almost like not being true to your values if you sell out, don't you think that's how he sees it," Koenitzer says.

We're sitting in her dad Oscar Skoug's compact house – a stone's throw from the 75 milking cows and acreage he's passing on to his son. Skoug could not avoid the frac sand mining issue – he serves on the town's three-person board.

"The Thompson group came to us," Skoug says.

The Thompsons are another multigenerational family from Sioux Creek.

"They wanted to start sand mining. Well, our first reaction was to put in a moratorium so they couldn't do anything," Skoug adds.

Sioux Creek did not have a single mining ordinance on its books. The council eventually came up with a few basic protections for residents – especially for those who would live closest to a mine. Now, Skoug says, the pressure is building - two mining groups want to break ground next summer.

A furrow slices daughter Jill Skoug Koenitzer's brow. She sees the mining debate from two sides. She had been teaching in southeastern Wisconsin, but she and her husband decided to move their two young sons to Sioux Creek.

"Because we wanted this quality of life this speed of life," Koenitzer says.

When she became principal of the local elementary school here.

"I saw the devastation the economic realities have had on the families and so I'm thrilled to know that there are people who didn't have work, who now have work – people who were really struggling to get by, are really getting by," Koenitzer says.

We hop into Koenitzer's car to view mines already operating nearby, as well as the potential sites. Just beyond Sioux Creek – we encounter multiple mines in full operation. As mining moves from one sand-rich plot to the next, workers must remediate the parcel they're leaving. Her dad Oscar Skoug is not convinced the land will again be fully fit for farming.

"It takes a long time for for it to become productive farmland. You take all the topsoil off and you put it all back on, but guess what? You lose a bunch of it somewhere along the line," Skoug says.

Reentering Sioux Creek, daughter Jill points to a range of hills slated for mining. She says a local retired doctor is a key driver in that venture. I paid a visit to Dr. Fred Bannister's hilltop home.

"My neighbors, we all got together and said we'll sign a contract with a potential miner, they did all the testing last January and February – all 994 acres," Bannister says.

Bannister says his only concern is transportation. Sand-hauling trucks could tax local roads beyond their capacity, and the risk of accidents increases with each new mine. But the retiree and colleagues have proposed a solution - a conveyer system. It would trundle compartment's full of sand directly from mine to rail lines a few miles away.

As for potential health risks, Bannister dismisses them.

"Air monitoring is being done along all the mines – even our conveyer would have to have air monitoring, but there's been no evidence of anything.  Period," Bannister says.

Fellow Sioux Creek resident Tim Knutson is watching his son's football game. Knutson is satisfied with the balance local government has struck, but has concerns about the long-term affect of mining on the groundwater. His family's homestead lies in the valley just below the proposed mining. No matter what, he plans to stay put.

"If you pulled in my yard and offered to write me a check for $15 million bucks, I don't think I'd take it and part of that is – I have a 12 year old son and there's only one place on earth he can hunt deer where is great grandfather did. I can't write a check to buy another place like that," Knutson says.

It appears the Knutson's and all Sioux Creek residents will have hands on experience of being a frac sand mining town.