Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fracking Flows Downstream

As if fracking wasn't bad enough in its direct effects on the landscape and people who live in it, it turns out there are secondary effects as well. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

Saturday's Star Tribune told of increased demand for the perfectly round silica sand found near the Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This type of sand is injected into the fractured rock in the fracked wells to keep the cracks open; each well needs thousands of tons of sand. As a result, "energy and mining companies are buying and leasing large tracts of land from Black River Falls, Wis., to Red Wing, Minn., and south along the Mississippi."

The sand is dug from open-pit mines; the process results in silica dust (lung disease, anyone?) and the sand needs to be hauled away in caravans of trucks over local roads.

Residents of scenic Red Wing, whose main industry is tourism, are currently up in arms about the purchase of 155 acres two miles outside of town, plus land north of the city for a processing plant. (Gee, I wonder how the sand gets from south of town to north of town to the plant?) The mining land includes river bluffs, according to the Strib reporter Josephine Marcotty.

Photo of the Mississippi south of Red Wing from a bluff high above it
(Photo from atop Barn Bluff in Red Wing, looking south, by armorer from the Wikimedia Commons)

From the description in the Strib, it sounds like the mines, if allowed to proceed unfettered, would result in a complete change in the appearance of the area. The sandstone that makes the sand also "forms the hills and bluffs that give the land [from Mankato to Madison] its distinctive shape." Marcotty writes:

Wisconsin requires the companies to restore the land back to where it can be useful again -- but not to the way it was.... Industry officials acknowledge the worries. "At the top of the list we have dust, trucking and water," said Rich Budinger, regional manager for Wisconsin Industrial Sands, which owns mines in Maiden Rock, Bay City and Menomonie. "Blasting is another concern."

His company works with local communities to minimize the effects, he said -- tracking water usage, using tarps on its trucks and limiting the use of dynamite.

But the topography will change.

"The end would be a flat farm field that could be used for an industrial park 25 or 30 years down the road," he said.
Yeah, an industrial park: That'll draw tourists to Red Wing. Marcotty continues:
The mines are largely unregulated in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and neither state has standards for silica dust. Operations are permitted county by county, township by township.

"Most of the towns and counties do not know what to do," said Patricia Popple, who helps lead a citizens group in Chippewa County. When two local governments in Wisconsin tried to adopt zoning ordinances to control sand operations, the companies filed suit and won, Masterpole said.
This is the type of catch-22 that municipalities find themselves in -- for some odd reason, they don't have laws on their books banning property owners from blowing up their property to excavate it and haul it away. Once a company has bought a property, though, the town can't prohibit it from using the property as it wants, no matter how destructive it is or damaging to its neighbors.

This is ridiculous.
Popple's group fought unsuccessfully against a sand processing plant that soon will open in Chippewa Falls. Hundreds of semitrailer trucks will roll along rural roads, 20 hours a day. The processing facility will use 600,000 gallons of water a day -- enough for a small city -- although much of it will be recycled onsite [emphasis added].
Why can't eminent domain apply in cases like this? Public safety and the essential economic well-being of the municipality seem like pretty good reasons for seizure of a property, as long as there is compensation to the company.

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