Environmentalism and Economics Clash as Unimin Mining Looks to Expand

Ho Chunk members and 350 activists, groups opposed to frac-sand mining, found themselves amidst a job fair held by ‘SmartSand’, a frac-sand mining company in the area, while preparing for a Hixton town meeting to determine if Unimin mining corporation would be allowed to open an addition mine in the area. 

Jobseekers line up outside firehouse in Hixton, WI. This picture was taken around 6PM, two hours into the job fair. This lasted until roughly 8PM
Jobseekers line up outside firehouse in Hixton, WI. This picture was taken around 6PM, two hours into the job fair. This lasted until roughly 8PM

SmartSand reportedly purchased 600 acres from Fairview Cranberry, a Pennsylvania company, for over $6.6 million dollars.

This job fair drew a crowd of hundreds from counties in every direction. Despite the known and unknown risks associated with frac-sand mining and its future consequences, there was little to slow locals from signing up for a spot.

The harsh economic realities of the world today don’t allow people the option to weigh the ethics and implications of sand-mining in Wisconsin. A $25/hour job with full medical benefits in a rural area is certain to attract workers, and doesn’t spark any hesitation.

The $25 may be paltry in comparison to what the company will make, but with mining decisions, it is often not the only money at play.

Another source reports that a total of $1.7 million was offered to nearby residents whose land would be used or would be directly on the border of the mining sites.

While locals continued to line-up for an opportunity with SmartSand, another crowd was gathering in a warehouse just outside of town for the Hixton town meeting.

When the Ho Chunk advocates and 350 members arrived, it had already filled and was standing room only.

Steve Groening, Regional Vice President of Unimin Corporation, initiated the presentation. Unimin is the world’s largest frac-sands producer, and has been a privately held company for over 40 years.

“We love this state and we want to treat it right” Groening said. He also elaborated on the long-standing history of mining in this state, and mentioned that Unimin’s jobs often last generations.

An engineer at Unimin, Scott Atkins, was the main presenter. As an environmental journalist, it was hard to view the presentation objectively. As a 350 activist, it was exasperating.

The long-term prospects were advertised, some of which were jobs guaranteed to last twenty years. In addition to Unimin’s “industry leading dust-control systems”, they also practice a high level of community engagement. Not to take anything away from Unimin; nothing in a mining contract says that companies have to give back to their community.

This can be misleading though; giving a minute portion of corporate profits in the name of ‘community development’ is topical, it only masks problems and has the same purpose as buying pink drill bits for fracking to support breast cancer research.

Throughout the presentation, and within the contract itself, there was a consistent theme. Whenever something Unimin was doing might be a cause for concern, community members were assured it would be done “to the best of industry standards”. A quick count found this language over 5 times in the contract.

As an example, when asked whether or not this mining would affect the ground water, Unimin replied “we do not plan on mining below the water table” but if they did have to, the reclamation would be done “to the best of industry standards”.

8 monitoring wells would also be placed around the site, but once water is contaminated it stays contaminated forever. It makes no difference whether there are 100 or even 1,000 monitoring wells, one mistake can have catastrophic consequences.

Another statement offered:

“We do not envision having to blast and drill in Hixton. It will be doze and rip like at Tunnel City”.

Regardless of your view on this matter, the distinction between blast and drill and doze and rip is fairly ambiguous.

Jobs, the major selling point of the mining contract, warrant an entire analysis on their own. In short, there are too many sustainable, feasible alternatives to justify the continued creation of short term mining jobs in the name of economic progress at the expense of the health of millions of people.

Rail cars carrying the frac-sand are seen leaving the Hixton area. This particular train stretched nearly a mile.
Rail cars carrying the frac-sand are seen leaving the Hixton area. This particular train stretched nearly a mile.

Hixton and Jackson County will make $0.15 per ton of earth shipped, for the first million tons. Then it drop to $0.10 per ton. This is exploitation to the highest degree.

An economic analysis in the Wall Street Journal put the price of frac-sand at $56 per ton prior to shipping. A similar analysis in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found equivalent pricing, but reported that by the time the sand made it to the well it was worth as much as $200 per ton.

Compared to the price it takes to produce a ton, roughly $25, that leaves mining companies with anywhere between $30-175 per ton in profit.

For the sake of argument, and to make the math easier, assume Unimin makes $100 per ton. Assuming they pay their employees well, and they follow “the best of the industry standards” in reclamation, refinement, and transportation, they spend $85 of that $100.

That leaves $15, and if Jackson county were to receive $0.15 per ton indefinitely, they still are receiving only 1% of the profit. Community engagement may pick up some of the slack, but the lack of transparency in spending and salaries is astounding.

In a business as historically destructive as mining, it is better to assume the worst before allowing new mines to develop.

Unimin Corporation, to their credit, is the best that frac-sand mining has to offer. But with over 60 mines already open in Wisconsin, health hazards are only going to worsen and the fracking boom will continue.

At what point do Wisconsin residents, and the millions affected by our decisions, put their foot in the ground and no longer allow companies to oversell their benefits, exploit small towns, and irreparably damage beautiful landscapes?

Harley Fredriksen


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