We continue our exploration of frac sand mining that is sweeping western Wisconsin landscapes.
Frac sand mining seems to have squeezed its way into lives at every turn in western Wisconsin. Its sand-rich landscape harbors silica of the perfect size and strength critical to fracking – the process that pulls oil and natural gas from the earth. Proposed mine applications continue to dominate local meetings, while opponents press for environmental protections.
We continue to explore how the boom is playing out among people closest. You can't get any closer than the mine itself – so today, WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence takes us to Superior Silica Sands.
I actually started at the end of the mining process, because that was what the Texas-based company had planned to show me. This place hums 24/7.
"Our plant here makes about 1.4 million tons a year," Josh Clements says.
Clements walked onto the 20-acre parcel that bumps into a town called New Auburn, a little over a year ago, as an electrician. Before he knew it…
"They hired me to be plant manager," Clement says.
Today the 31 year old manages 30 workers here. They operate heavy machinery that dries the sand and then sorts it by size. The coveted stuff is then loaded onto rail cars.
"We send it to.Canada, Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, North Dakota," Clements says.
The company is about to open another plant – northwest of here – that will pump out almost twice as much. Clements calls it a drop in the industry bucket. He figures there are at least 30 installations within a 30 miles radius.
We hop into Clements' truck to see where the process begins – at the mine. On the way, we wind past wide farming expanses. He points to hills in the distance.
"That seems to be the best sand, it has a lot of overburden on it that protects it from the glacier.. The glacier, it did helped by turning the sand and making it round," Clements says,
Superior's mining site is a long bluffed ridge.
"I think there's like six or seven farmers that own the bluff and then they get royalty rights to the sand; every ton that we take off we pay them undisclosed amount of money," Clements says.
Eventually the company will turn what used to be a bluff into a wooded area or land to be farmed.
"It's up to the farmer or landowner on what they want to have done. We have to put money aside per acre for the reclamation plan," Clements says.
It will be years before the process is complete. So far Superior has worked up about 30 acres worth; it expects to be extracting sand here for 30 years
Within minutes, a battalion of earthmovers and dump trucks come into view. Clements explains that they take the top off the bluffs to reach what he calls, the good stuff.
"It looks like they need to take off eight more feet off, judging by the color the sand – it looks dirty. See the truck coming out? He's getting into the good sand," Clements says.
Huge shovels begin burrowing into the side of the abridged ridge and dropping loads of sand into trucks. They carry it to the wet plant where the material moves through conveyers and machines that shake and break it up. That's where the water comes in.
"It drops down into the red tank, then mixes with water and becomes a slurry. And then you can see the big black pipes – it heads all the way down to the end of the plants," Clements says.
Clements says the heartbeat of the operation resides within an unassuming elevated trailer.
"He runs the the whole plant right here, Robbie, yeah. He stares at a little computer screen and he runs both ends of the plants," Clements says.
When Robbie gives the okay, truck drivers cue up to transfer the sand– one heavy load at a time. Clements says 15 trucks cruise back and forth eight hours a day – except Sundays.
"And the little roads, we redo them since we have so many, an abundance of truck traffic on it ; we redo the roads for the town of New Auburn we just redid that road and paid for it;" Clements says.
The company's attention to local roads does not assuage every concern. There are water worries. Clements says Silica recycles 80 percent of the water it uses, yet needed to dig a new high capacity well as a back up. It can pump 750 gallons a minute.
Other residents are worried that a component of the "washing" process could make its way into neighboring rivers or wells. Superior uses a chemical additive – called flocculants – to bind the leftovers.
"Same stuff they use in water treatment plants. It basically attaches to the solids and sinks it," Clements says.
Then some people have their eyes on the sky – wondering if bits of airborne silica could penetrate their lungs. Clement says he attempts to appease fears by showing up at town meetings.
"A lot of them don't want to listen to you, they just want to argue. I just try to feed them the information and that we're not harming and hopefully, even if I can change one person's mind, it'll help," Clements says.
It could be an uphill battle. A year ago – before Clements became plant manager – Superior Silica was slapped with a $4,000 fine for spilling wash water that made its way into a nearby trout stream.