Tucked behind a hill in rural Trempealeau County, farmland undergoes an industrial transformation.
Outside Blair, a city of 1,300, Preferred Sands turns Wisconsin's sandy soil into a hot commodity. A wall of green trees opens to a vast expanse of sand buzzing with activity. Excavators mine and conveyors carry the sand from towering stockpiles up into the processing plant. Every week, this facility ships 7,500 tons of sand by rail to oil and gas fields in Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania.
This 400-acre mine and processing facility is just one of 20 such operations that have sprung up in the past two years in Trempealeau County. The mines and processing plants produce strong, fine-grained sand in high demand for a type of oil and natural gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The number of Wisconsin frac sand mining operations has more than doubled in the past year, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found, and the state leads the nation in production.
"We have the best sand in the world," says Tom Woletz, the frac sand specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
"And we have a lot of sand."
The frac sand industry has grown fast, and no government agency has an up-to-date list of all of the mines and processing plants in Wisconsin. A year ago, the Center identified 41 facilities operating or proposed in the state. This summer 87 are operating or under construction, with another 20 facilities in the proposal stage.
This map details the fracking sand industry in Wisconsin.
"Our office has turned into a zoo," says Kevin Lien, director of land management for Trempealeau County. "We have seven applications for mining permits in July. Everyone here is engulfed in mining. It's a huge workload for us."
Frac sand fever has hit much of west-central Wisconsin, catching residents and local governments by surprise. Permit applications have come in faster than residents or officials can process them -- or the implications for their communities.
Minnesota officials believe that state may be poised for a similar boom. Applications have been pouring in for new facilities in addition to the six mines, three processing plants and loading and unloading facilities already operating in southeastern Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The frac sand boom has divided residents into those who believe mining will create sorely needed jobs in rural Wisconsin and those who fear the impact these mines may have on human health, road safety and the environment. Some critics worry that industry tactics -- such as one company buying lunch for residents sporting pro-mining T-shirts at a recent public hearing -- make it hard for local officials to objectively evaluate the proposals.
Some communities have readily welcomed frac sand mining for economic reasons. Others, including Buffalo, Dunn, Eau Claire and Pepin counties and a handful of towns, slapped on temporary moratoriums to give them time to review and update their land-use regulations.
"No doubt it was something we've never dealt with before," says Terry Schmidt, the Jackson County zoning administrator. "Requests come in monthly. We've been busy learning a lot about frac sand."
Bruce Brown, senior geologist with the Wisconsin Geological Survey, agrees with other state officials that Wisconsin may be reaching the peak of the frac sand boom.
"I think it's going to slow down," Brown says. "People worry that we're going to sell out all of the sand in Wisconsin. That's not going to happen."
Communities caught off-guard
The demand for sand has soared in tandem with the explosion in controversial hydraulic fracturing operations in Texas, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Frac sand production has increased seven-fold in the past decade, according to the United States Geological Survey. Thomas Dolley, a mineral commodity specialist at the USGS, says he can't give state-specific numbers to protect individual companies' proprietary information. But he confirmed that Wisconsin is currently the nation's largest producer of frac sand.
"It's like a land rush for this material," Dolley says. "I've been covering this commodity for 11 years and I've never seen anything like this."
The sand is used to prop open fractures in the bedrock, allowing oil or natural gas to flow past. Wisconsin's world-class sand sells for about $45 per ton. Shipping the sand is expensive, so each ton can fetch $200 by the time it reaches the drill site, and each well requires 1,500 to 2,500 tons of sand.
Wisconsin's sand industry began more than a century ago, although at a much more modest level. Regulators and industry officials note that frac sand mining employs the same processes as all industrial sand mining.
"I think the whole process is pretty straightforward," says Todd Murchison, the regional manager for Preferred Sands, a Minnesota-based company that operates sand mining and processing facilities, including five sites in Wisconsin. "If we agree that mining needs to be done, then we want to do it as safely as possible."
Frac sand operations must follow state regulations for non-metallic mines. The rules written two decades ago were meant for small sand and gravel quarries, not 1,000-acre mines or industrial facilities that process up to 800,000 tons of sand a year.
Currently, all non-metallic mining companies must have a plan for restoring the land and controlling stormwater runoff from their properties. Two damaging sand spills occurred in Wisconsin this spring, caused in part by failure to follow existing regulations.
Mines and processing facilities also must abide by state laws protecting navigable waters, wetlands, large groundwater withdrawals, drinking water quality and endangered species. Wisconsin's sandy soil is prime habitat for the endangered Karner blue butterfly, which, as the Center reported in January, some companies may be failing to check for.
Large mines and processing facilities also must meet state air pollution limits for airborne particles, in part to reduce exposure to silica dust, a substance that can cause a life-threatening lung disease. While silica exposure in the workplace is tightly regulated, there are no specific limits for silica dust in the open air.
In January, the state Department of Natural Resources decided (PDF) that no additional regulations are needed.
"The current non-metallic mining regulations implemented at the county level, as well as the various environmental regulations implemented by the department, are adequate to ensure that permits for individual sand mining operations and processing facilities are protective of public health and the environment," the agency says.
The influx of permits has forced local governing boards to make complicated decisions about how to manage this unfamiliar industry.
"Having served as a town official myself, I know that there's many things we're not prepared for," says Pilar Gerasimo, a journalist and environmental activist in Dunn County who served as a chairwoman of the Lucas Town Board.
Gerasimo believes local leaders are often too quick to go along with mine operator requests. She worries that some decision are not being made by "qualified people armed with good information."
Others disagree, saying local governments are doing a good job managing the boom.
"They are pretty conscientious about it," Brown says. "They want to make sure proposals are realistic and that the reclamation plan is accomplishable."
Power to regulate varies
The ability of local governments to regulate this growing industry depends largely on whether the areas are zoned. In zoned areas, mine operators must apply for conditional use permits from the local governments. Many county officials believe that these permits are sufficient to regulate sand mining because they are flexible and site-specific.
But the Center found that about a third of existing and proposed facilities are in jurisdictions that have no zoning, leaving local officials with little control over how or where mining occurs.
"If you don't have zoning, it makes it very difficult to say no," says Dan Masterpole, the conservationist for Chippewa County, where frac sand facilities are located primarily in unzoned towns. "We have no authority to regulate where [mining] should occur, operations, noise, air, dust or any of those type of nuisance-related impacts."
In unzoned areas, the only control counties have over mining is the reclamation permit, which primarily deals with how the site will be returned to a productive land use, like agriculture or a park, after mining is complete. The permit also requires that the mine put up a bond to cover the cost of reclamation if it goes out of business. The DNR handles air and water regulations for all sites, zoned or not.
In areas with zoning, local governing boards listen to presentations from mine operators and gather public comments at meetings to determine which restrictions to place on conditional use permits.
Common conditions include restricting hours of operations or the number of trucks per day, requiring dust monitoring and even rerouting truck traffic to avoid school bus routes. These conditions satisfy many residents, but others believe they don't do enough to keep the community safe.
Mike O'Connor, a Buffalo County resident, attended many of these meetings in the past year to voice his concerns about the frac sand industry -- particularly what he believes will be unsafe heavy truck traffic on winding local roads.
"This just came out of nowhere and caught everybody by surprise," O'Connor says. "We've got a lot of very fearful people and a lot of very greedy people, and the tragedy is the lack of political leadership to bring these people to the table together to work something out."
Jobs, environment part of debate
In Gilmanton, a town with fewer than 500 people in Buffalo County, many lawns sport bright green signs proclaiming "Sand = Jobs." About half the residents in attendance at a public hearing in June wore bright green shirts with the same slogan, provided by Glacier Sands, a mine operator applying for permits.
Company co-owner Ryan Thomas said he plans to hire about 100 employees plus local contractors for electrical, welding and other services for the four mining, processing and loading sites his Menomonie-based company is planning for Buffalo County.
In addition to jobs, the local economic benefits of frac sand mining include equipment purchases and increased property tax revenues.
Negative effects include wear and tear on county roads from hundreds of sand trucks hauling heavy loads. Some counties, including Chippewa and Wood, have created road impact fees that would shift the costs of damage and improvements to the frac sand companies.
For many residents, the promise of new jobs and new industry trumps all other concerns.
"No one moves here, there's no jobs here," said Lisa Bloom, a local teacher wearing a green "Sand = Jobs" shirt. "Change is hard, but Gilmanton needs change to survive."
Bloom and her family intend to lease their Buffalo County farm to Glacier Sands so the company can mine the property's rolling hills. Once mining is complete in about 15 years, she said her family plans to farm on the newly leveled fields.
Bloom isn't worried about her family living with a mining and processing operation in their backyard. But across Wisconsin's sandy countryside, people living near such operations are concerned about the health effects of dust.
The sand grains themselves are harmless -- think sand on a beach -- but the silica dust particles created by the sand processing are basically tiny glass shards.
Exposure to silica dust can cause silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease. There are federal limits on acceptable silica exposure in the workplace, and some workers use respirators. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported 75 deaths in Wisconsin from silicosis between 1996 and 2005, mainly among manufacturing and mining workers.
According to Darrell Smith of the trade group Industrial Minerals Association, based in Washington, D.C., silicosis is easily prevented with good ventilation and engineering that keeps dust in enclosed spaces and minimizes risks to workers.
Some mines and processing plants also monitor the air outside their facilities, but according to Hillary Carpenter, a toxicologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, no research-supported safe level of silica exposure in the ambient air has been developed. At a June public meeting in Winona, Minn., he explained that to date, there has not been enough concern about environmental silica exposure to warrant a study.
At the Preferred Sands facility in Blair, the company has installed dust collectors at key points in the sand process and has erected monitors along the perimeter, Murchison said. The company also only ships sand in covered railcars.
Chemical use raises questions
Another concern centers on the use of chemicals called flocculants that many facilities use to help remove sediments so that they can continually reuse the millions of gallons of water needed for mining and processing.
Gerasimo and other environmentalists worry that the flocculants may make their way into the groundwater and cause unforeseen problems. According to the DNR's Woletz, these chemicals already are approved for erosion control and even municipal water treatment. The mines use lined storage ponds to prevent seepage into the groundwater, he says.
Murchison says the Blair mining and processing facility recycles 90 percent of its water -- the remainder evaporates -- further reducing the potential for groundwater contamination. He says the company wants to be a good neighbor and has established a citizen steering committee to help Preferred Sands understand and address community concerns.
"We need this stuff, we need natural gas," Murchison says. "We need energy independence, in my opinion. I think that the key is we're going to do it, but let's do it right."
But when companies don't take thorough environmental precautions, accidents can happen, as two spills in May demonstrated.
At a Burnett County mine, a leak in a new storage pond poured silty water into the St. Croix River for days until a hiker noticed the problem. Shortly after Preferred Sands bought the mine in Blair from a Canadian company, a wet stockpile of sediment slipped and flooded a neighboring home.
Murchison says the company knew the stockpile it inherited was unstable. Over the winter, the material was too frozen to move. Once it thawed, workers quickly moved to restructure the large pile. But before they finished, a big storm dumped so much rain that the remaining pile slid downhill, he says.
Both companies are now facing fines from the state.
"We've had a huge amount of change since we had that spill," Murchison says. "Every day, we have to leave everything so that it will be safe in case it rains two inches overnight."
Gerasimo and O'Connor both worry about other damage to their communities, such as lost tourism or residential development if the mining operations detract from the quiet and peaceful scenery that draws people to west-central Wisconsin.
"Many of us are here for Aldo Leopold's sand country," O'Connor says, referring to the famous Wisconsin environmentalist. "This is a really spectacular piece of the world, so to have it ripped apart is kind of emotional.
"But there is a pretty compelling story on the other side. It's a very ambiguous issue which makes it emotionally very difficult."
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.