Wisconsin Frac-sand Mining Expansion Faces Opposition

A rural town of less than 500 people finds itself center-stage in the national fracking debate.

Hixton, Wisconsin, is home to a number of frac-sand mines which account for as much as 75% of the sand used in the fracking industry.

Fracking is a process in which sand, water, and chemicals are injected under intense pressure into a well. This high-velocity mixture fractures the shale rock beneath, and natural gas is released as a result. The collection of this natural gas has lead energy companies to invest in this process, and over 500,000 wells are currently open in the U.S alone. 

The frac-sand mining process. The hills seen in the background will eventually be cleared and look identical to the foreground
The frac-sand mining process. The hills seen in the background will eventually be cleared and look identical to the foreground

Hixton held a town meeting on January 29th to determine whether Unimin Mining Corporation would be allowed to open an additional frac-sand mine in the county.

Unimin mining has, from the industry’s perspective, an impeccable record. They have expressed a commitment to transparency and sustainability and provide for a number of industries, including fiberglass and other architectural glass, tires and rubber goods, floor and wall tile, crucibles and quartzware, fertilizer production, but most controversially hydraulic fracturing.

Intentions aside, fracking has been a cause for controversy; tap water becomes combustible, and earthquakes occur away from fault lines. Controversy comes as no surprise.

Before this sand leaves the mine site, it must be processed: silica coats the sand beads so that upon its infusion with chemicals and subsequent high-pressured injection, it does not melt.

Members of 350 Stevens Point travelled to Jackson County to view the frac-sand mining operations and meet with members of the Ho-Chunk nation.

Sustainability reports do not capture the entire situation, the Ho-chunk nation feels. Reclamation, a process in which the mining organization attempts to restore the land to its former state, is an area where these companies fall short. Efforts at a previous mine site that were once touted as successful, have now caused additional harm.

“It’s as if you are doing surgery. If you remove something, it is not going to be the same,” said community board member Sheila Davidson, “It’s creating new evolutionary paradigms, and it is frustrating to see because when we destroy the earth we destroy ourselves”.

One Jackson county mine site was converted into a lake. Prior to this transition, a non-native species was introduced for a quick vegetative regeneration of the area. This species happened to be an invasive one, with natural fauna carrying its seeds and the increased traffic in the area fueling the spread.

The problem with reclamation, they argue, is that there are no specific plans laid out.

“The reclamation language in mining contracts is such that it must only follow the laws, but no explicit measures must be taken,” added Davidson. This often leaves true reclamation efforts to taxpayers and community members.

350 Stevens Point members were largely concerned with the human effects because sand in the atmosphere is a potential cause for respiratory problems.

While the occupational hazards have been studied and no regulatory agencies have banned the practice of sand-mining, there is cause for concern.  As current epigenetic research shows, the fragility and susceptibility of our respiratory systems to these types of environmental exposures is massively understudied.

Working with carbon nanomaterials of similar size to the sand particles, mice exposed to these small materials had physical changes of the DNA in their blood, lungs, and kidneys. As the mice reacted to the exposure, their gene expression was being altered.

Gene expression plays a major role in cell health; when genes are activated they create proteins that help the cell function. Changing the expression is potentially hazardous because depending on which genes are suppressed or activated, it can have implications in cancer and other pathology.

When the tissues of these mice were examined, they were experiencing early stages of fibrotic disease and even brief exposure was causing prolonged inflammation.

This occurs because carbon, or any kind of small particle, can become lodged in the alveoli of the lungs. These alveoli, or small sacs, are unable to clear materials of that size. Instead, they build a defense against it by depositing hard tissue around the materials, reducing lung volume and plasticity.

Unimin Corporation would be joining over 60 other frac-sand mines in the area, and as a whole Unimin has sent over 20 million tons of sand to customers worldwide. Even with the best practices the industry has to offer, there will still be sand that makes it into the air.

Residents near these mines have differing opinions, however. While some look forward to the jobs it will bring, others are already having trouble keeping up, and find themselves having to clean and vacuum often to stay ahead of an endless stream of sand.

For those outside the county, this may seem like an afterthought. Larry Littlegeorge, an activist from the Ho Chunk nation and member of the Federation of United tribes, used a historical event as an example of why this issue should concern them.

“With something that small, it can easily be carried hundreds of miles in the air. During the dust bowl, sediment was going from the middle of the United States to as far as the Atlantic.”

Littlegeorge has been a longtime environmental advocate, and spoke of his participation in the People’s Climate March where the Federation of United tribes was invited to march with Jill Stein.  He and other members of the Ho Chunk nation are optimistic about their chances of reducing the mining in their area.

Cathleen Vinote, a Hixton senate member, has submitted 5 bills against the mines, none of which have made it to the floor. Gerrymandering, a well-known political tactic where districts are redrawn to manipulate voting outcomes, has in her opinion played a role. They have a plan of their own, however.

The Ho Chunk nation is sovereign, meaning that their tribal laws supersede federal laws on their lands. It also gives them “buffer zones” from industry in close proximity to their territory. Using this, they may be able to ban mining within a 60 mile radius of any of their lands, effectively nullifying all sand mining operations in Wisconsin.

As the adverse effects of mining and fracking are elucidated and strengthened with further research, it is safe to say this will not be the last we hear from the Ho Chunk nation and any number of anti-fracking environmentalists.

Harley Fredriksen


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