Varying across municipalities, mine permitting in Michigan can bring very serious consequences. This is the second of a two-part series.
This guest article outlines the role of local government in determining Michigan’s frac sand permitting and explores how decisions can vary.
Southwest Detroit and neighboring South Rockwood in Monroe County could not be more different demographically, but one thing they have in common is a consistent battle with the extractives industry.
With environmental advocates Theresa Landrum and Doug Wood, FracTracker created a Story Map to document what this infrastructural buildout in Southeastern Michigan looks like from the air, how it has displaced entire neighborhoods, and how it has forever changed their quality of life, in the name of short-term profiteering.
“Marathon is a prime example of corporate polluters continuing
to choose profit over safeguards for our public health.”
– Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib
Each year, FracTracker Alliance gives out its Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship. We had an amazing group of candidates this year, and the four winners are extremely brave, persistent, insightful, and collaborative activists representing diverse communities all over the country.
I have had the good fortune to interact with two of the winners – Theresa Landrum and Brenda Jo McManama – quite frequently over my time at FracTracker. This year’s Sentinel Award winners and all its previous recipients are passionate and persistent fighters for environmental justice in their own backyards and around the United States.
It is around this time of year that all the negativity involved in the fight against fossil fuel industries dissolves away for me as I find myself inspired and humbled by the Sentinel winners. Theresa and Brenda Jo constantly inspire me and FracTracker to strive to do more, do better, and remain cleareyed as to whom we serve. All the Community Sentinel nominees are exemplars of what it is to walk authentically and humbly through life.
However, I am going to spend the next couple paragraphs speaking specifically about Ms. Landrum, because it is she that I have come to know and work quite well with since COVID-19 was something we thought would be gone by June.
I had heard so many amazing things about Ms. Landrum from a common comrade, Mr. Doug Wood, whom FracTracker has written about with respect to the silica sand mining he is fighting and dubious pro-mining legislation being pushed in Michigan’s Statehouse, but I had never met her in person. That changed on a scorching hot day this past June, when Doug, Theresa, and I met (socially distanced) in the shadow of Marathon Petroleum’s refinery at Detroit’s Kemeny Recreation Center, just a couple stones throws across I-75 (see images below).
Incidentally, this is the same refinery that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D, MI-13) has been railing against for years, including in a statement she issued on yet another incident at
“Marathon is a prime example of corporate polluters continuing to choose profit over safeguards for our public health. It is time to say enough is enough of Marathon’s constant disregard of the health and safety of residents who live, work, and visit the surrounding communities. Marathon has perpetrated numerous incidents detrimental to our communities and must be held accountable – they clearly cannot be trusted to protect our health. I look forward to discussing the need to hold Marathon and other entities who poison our community accountable and solutions to make our communities breathe and live free at the upcoming congressional field hearing I am hosting with other members of Congress, experts, and grassroots activists here in Detroit.”
Scroll horizontally to see additional images:
- Southeastern Michigan Environmental Activists Doug Wood and Theresa Landrum at Detroit’s 48217 Kimeny Park with Marathon’s Refinery in the Background, June, 2020
- Anti-Frac Sand mine signage created by Monroe County, Michigan activist Doug Wood, June, 2020
- No Dumping signage erected by Marathon Oil in Detroit’s Oakwood Neighborhood adjacent to the company’s oil refinery
- Concerned Citizen and Sylvania Minerals mine neighbor Doug Wood
It did not take more than 30 seconds for me to realize that Theresa was an authentic and persistent fighter for her community, and that she belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of EJ advocates – as does Doug Wood and all of the Community Sentinel nominees past, present, and future.
After meeting at the recreation center, I followed Theresa around with my drone, capturing footage and images of the worst actors in the 48217 zip code of Southwest Detroit, as well as of River Rouge and Ecorse. This turned out to be the first of three trips to meet with Theresa throughout the summer and fall of 2020.
During each trip and across dozens of phone conversations, Theresa explained to me what industry has done to Southwest Detroit, how she has gone about combatting it, and the way that Lansing treats Wayne County.
It struck me that much of her experience overlaps with the stories I have heard in disparate demographics, from soybean farmers in LaSalle County, Illinois, to dairy farmers in Western Wisconsin, all the way to coalminers in Central Appalachia.
Their stories illustrate the near universal tale of how industry needs and welfare demands take precedence over the rights of citizens. It is the story of globalization, shareholder returns, and political/economic elites ignoring, mocking, or being deaf and blind to the needs of their constituents and the crimes being committed in the name of progress and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
One thing Theresa and I have spent quite a bit of time discussing is the overlap in environmental justice across demographics, and how superficial differences have been weaponized to divide us, leaving only corporations and their political handmaids to benefit. Industry beneficiaries and politicians have colluded to declare in the words of Thomas Frank’s latest book “The People, No!” Yet, it is people like Theresa, Doug, Brenda Jo, and all the other environmental activists we celebrate who are and will be instrumental in bridging those divides, and guiding the citizenry to pivot, to identify and defeat the real Leviathan – the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex in all its manifestations and with all its tentacles spread out across this country.
The best way I know how to return the favor to folks like Theresa is to continue to do what FracTracker does best, and what I hope I am doing well, which is documenting the infrastructure and landscapes that are or have been in the crosshairs of industry, whether it be steel, coal, oil, or in the case of our name – fracked natural gas.
I have been working with Theresa and Doug on a Story Map that illustrates the scale and scope of industrial impacts in southeastern Michigan, from US Steel’s Zug Island to Sylvanian Mineral’s frac sand mine in South Rockwood. As I mentioned above, we have outlined the plight of Doug and Dawn Wood in their fight against their neighbor Sylvanian Minerals. However, with respect to Southwest Detroit, it is critical that we give a bit of background to the region’s cultural significance. For that, I am going to refer to Ms. Landrum’s own words, shared below:
A Historical Perspective of Wayne County Michigan’s Tri-Cities Region
By Theresa Landrum
During the first and second waves of the early 20th Century Great Migration, African Americans came from the South to Michigan’s communities of Ecorse (48229), River Rouge (48218), and Southwest Detroit (48217), AKA the “Triple Cities,” seeking factory jobs in the surrounding industries; U.S. Steel (formerly Great Lakes Steel), Ford Motor Company, Zug Island, Dana Corporation, and BASF Chemicals. During this time, many white men enlisted in the armed forces, and employers needed workers – so companies recruited southern African Americans to fill the jobs.
This region is one of the first African American settlements in Michigan after World War II, where Black people could actually buy homes, which helped establish metro Detroit’s Black middle class.
By the 1930s and 40s it was a self-sustaining area rich with opportunities, a mecca for Black-owned businesses, like gas stations, stores, jazz clubs, restaurants, hotels, laundromats, dry cleaners, and much more. It was also the home of Black professionals: doctors, pharmacists, policemen, florists, bakers, dentists, teachers, lawyers, and realtors thrived here, and was the site of one of Michigan’s first Black hospitals, Sidney A. Sumby Memorial Hospital, built by Black doctors.
The thread that ties these three communities/zip codes together is their formation of (what was then) Ecorse Township. Their division came after the City of Detroit expressed interest in annexing the River Rouge area. River Rouge incorporated into a village to ward this off, but Detroit was able to annex the Southwest 48217 area in 1922, thus segmenting Ecorse Township into three parts.
Fast forward to the 1950s, when Detroit’s landscape changed forever with the government’s declaration of “Eminent Domain” that claimed many African American homes for construction of the I-75 Expressway, which runs right through the center of Southwest Detroit’s (SWD) 48217 community. As I-75 was constructed, Ohio Oil (which officially became Marathon Oil in 1962) also increased its footprint in the area by acquiring nearly 100 acres and destroying a wetland habitat to expand its storage tank farm, which to date has over 100 storage tanks.
Marathon expanded again in 2007 with the announcement of the $2.2 billion Detroit Heavy Upgrade Project (DHOUP), where they would transition to refining dirty tar-sands from Alberta, Canada. This increased production to 120,000 barrels of crude per day, and thus increased the expulsion of harmful, pollutive emissions into the nearby neighborhoods. The project was completed in 2012, which also resulted in Marathon buying over 400 homes in the SWD 48217 (Oakwood Heights) area, further encroaching into residential communities.
Theresa was a recipient of the 2020 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship, presented by FracTracker Alliance and Halt the Harm Network. Read more about her story here.
The Thoughts of Dawn & Doug Wood About Living Next to a Frac Sand Mine
I asked Dawn and Doug Wood to send me their thoughts on what it is like living next to Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica’s frac sand mine in South Rockwood, Michigan. I extracted (and clarified where necessary) the excerpts below that clearly illustrate their frustrations with their community, local, and federally elected officials, as well as the mine operators:
“[The] list of insurmountable mini-nightmares of living next to a frac sand mine [is endless at this point]. [Ten] years ago, they wanted to annex this quarry. [Our] village government has exercised no control over this corporation. [T]he village and the quarry refuse to do any air monitoring, [and] the residents who voted [in favor of] this quarry continue to be silent against any controls over this quarry. Residents seem to fear retaliation if they speak out against [the] village/quarry, [and to this day we] can’t quite explain the community’s lack of outrage … [We] have been shaking our head for years about this … It’s like the pandemic, it is invisible, yet it is killing people … [and] we are living in a polluted community, so our lungs are already taxed [which amplified the impacts of COVID]. [We] have been petitioning for air monitors and dust controls for four years, [and to add insult to injury] after ten years of this bull- – – -, the industry proposes Senate Bill 431 to totally strip communities of their controls, allowing mines to expand whenever they want, and new quarries to just be approved wherever they want [which has prompted the industry to correctly assume] they are entitled. PURE MICHIGAN is the state slogan. We think that’s PURE BULL- – – -!!”
A Southwestern Detroit and Neighboring Monroe County Industrial Impacts Story Map
Southwest Detroit and neighboring South Rockwood in Monroe County could not be more different demographically, but one thing they have in common is a consistent battle with the extractives industry.
We built this Story Map to identify the industrial bad actors and census-level indicators such as mean annual income, and most importantly, to present a growing library of georeferenced drone footage and imagery we have collected over the years.
There have been dozens of other industrial projects foisted on the Triple Cities area of Detroit during this period and to the present day. The goal of this Story Map was to document with drone photography what this infrastructural buildout looks like from the air, how it has displaced and been incorporated directly into neighborhoods – and in the case of Sylvanian Mineral’s South Rockwood facility operating adjacent to good people like the Woods – how it has forever changed their quality of life, in the name of short-term profiteering.
We will continue to “infill” and expand this Story Map in the coming months and years, especially throughout greater Wayne County and the surrounding counties, as southeastern Michigan continues to act as a chokepoint for all manner of industrial and fossil fuel operators and activities. Furthermore, this collaborative effort with Ms. Landrum demands her community’s involvement and acceptance. We also strive to make this project a valuable resource for Michigan-based environmental NGOs and the state’s excellent journalists, like Steve Neavling at Detroit MetroTimes, and Evan Kutz at Great Lakes Beacon.
We plan to update this Map with more culturally significant imagery from the Detroit Public Library and The Wayne State Walter Reuther Library to include media focusing on labor strife, police violence, and the rich tradition and history of the region’s artistic heritage. Additionally, we will expand the depth and breadth of our drone imagery library, as well as continue our nascent effort to collect the stories of regional elders who speak to Southwest Detroit as one of the fulcrums of African American culture, and who explore how industrial colonialism has decimated much the area’s sense of place and community pride.
However, I am confident and hopeful that with progressive voices like Congresswoman Tlaib, committed journalists like those previously mentioned, and activists like Ms. Landrum passing the torch to a younger generation of activists, Southwest Detroit’s condition will take a turn for the better.
Footnote on Michigan’s Senate Bill 431
We wrote about the impacts that SB 431 would have on Michigan’s community and ecosystems last summer, when we were outlining some of the industry’s efforts in Statehouses across the country to weaken environmental regulations – and in some cases, the democratic process itself. SB 431, in particular, would have made the process of operating a sand and gravel mine in Michigan much easier, by way of removing local participation. As the Metamora Land Preservation Alliance (MLPA) wrote in opposition to the bill, this legislation would have allowed for “uncontrolled gravel mining” throughout the state. However, in a bit of good news, a large coalition of Michigan environmental organizations was able to defeat this bill with the MLPA, writing the following on its Facebook page:
“KILLER GRAVEL BILLS DEFEATED!!!
SENATE BILLS 431/849 DEFEATED!
NO SENATE VOTE THIS YEAR – BILLS ARE DEAD!
After almost 18 months of battling in Lansing – Senate Bills 431 & 849 (sponsored by Senator Hollier (D) Detroit) – have been defeated. They will not be coming up for a vote this calendar year, and by Senate rules they will therefore expire. Thus ending, for this year, the dire threat of uncontrolled gravel mining, endangerment of our groundwater, and loss of control of how our communities grow and develop. Make no mistake – this was a serious threat to Michigan’s citizens and communities – and it was a no-holds-barred fight in Lansing.”
Wins for communities over corporations like this are rare, indeed, and should be celebrated. Congratulations to the Woods, MLPA, and all the Michigan communities and organizations that pushed back against this bill. You are true Community Sentinels!
Industrial Impacts in Michigan:
A Photo Essay & Story Map
By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator
Theresa Landrum, of Detroit, Michigan, 48217. The Original United Citizens of Southwest Detroit; 48217 Community and Environmental Health Organization; Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice; Sierra Club Detroit Chapter, MEJC Clean Air Council; Michigan PFAS action response team
FracTracker and Public Lab, with support from Save the Hills Alliance, produced “Undermined,” an audio story featuring interviews with three residents impacted by the Hi-Crush Mine in Augusta, Wisconsin.
As the oil and gas industry feels pressure from former allies and see lending windows from their most loyal banking partners begin to dry up, they will be forced to cut costs elsewhere, and cut corners everywhere. This will come in the form of more industry-friendly regulations on the federal level under the current administration, as well as less stringent oversight at the state level. These trends are explicit manifestations of their desperation and influence.
The state-level laws the oil and gas industries are advocating for can easily fly under the radar. Most people just don’t have the bandwidth to educate themselves on the quiet development of these bills, nor to advocate against them. Much of the public’s attention is understandably focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, mass unemployment, and racial inequality. And, much of the critical attention around oil and gas legislation has correctly focused on the critical infrastructure legislation and related policy proposals we focused on in Part I of this series.
Below, we outline current attempts to weaken environmental regulations in Ohio, North Dakota, and Michigan. It is important to note that this is not an all-inclusive outline, but rather the bills we are aware of through our network of frontline and nonprofit contacts.
Ohio’s House Bill 545
A bill that would be hazardous to the health of all Ohioans, HB 545, intended to “Establish conditions for sale of brine as a commodity,” was introduced by first-term State Representative Adam Holmes, and second-termer Craig Riedel of Western Ohio. This bill would charge the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ (ODNR) Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management with establishing “conditions and requirements for the sale of brine from oil or gas operations as a commodity, and to exempt that commodity from requirements otherwise applicable to brine.” What could possibly go wrong? The dangers of potentially highly radioactive fracking waste have been known for years, and were recently detailed in great reporting by Justin Nobel for Rolling Stone. Countless others have spent years crying out against radioactive fracking waste being produced, transported, and disposed of all across the Appalachian regions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
So, quite a bit could – and likely would – go horribly wrong if we allow ODNR to put lipstick on this fracking waste pig, as it were. The worst part about this is that Representative Holmes knows, (or at least should know), better, given that he lives in Nashport, roughly two miles south of a very active Class II Salt Water Disposal Well, and just a couple more miles from nearly a dozen more injection wells (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Existing and Pending Ohio Class II Salt Water Disposal Injection Wells and Proposed Fracking Waste Docks.
In Ohio, it isn’t just about legislation. As part of the Division of Oil & Gas Resources Management’s ongoing Five Year Rule Review, a change was made to the Ohio Administrative Code (OAC) that went into effect last October. This change permits a saltwater disposal well owner to submit “on or before the fifteenth day of February of each calendar year … a statement of the volume of brine injected in the well for the immediately preceding calendar year.”
This change from quarterly to annual reporting will have profound implications for what little monitoring citizens are permitted. Clearly, the state has little interest or money to conduct monitoring.
An example of how great the lag could be, and how annual data will essentially be useless for any real-time concerns and/or incidents, the current year’s brine volume data will not be available until February 2021, and even then, the operator will have chances to revise the data. FracTracker has been compiling this data quarterly for years, and we will continue to make data that does exist publicly available.
One has to ask who prompted the demand for this change, and who exactly is on The Oil & Gas Division’s review committee. From the vantage point of most Ohioans concerned about this issue, this reporting change is going in the opposite direction of where a state with primacy over its Class II Wells should be going. When the US EPA has primacy over a state’s wells, as it does in Pennsylvania and Virginia, disposal volumes and pressures are reported annually, but the data are at least broken out monthly. (Note: More on Class II Well primacy and the language that allows states to maintain primacy will come in a future piece.)
As Buckeye Environmental Network Executive Director Teresa Mills and matriarch of the Ohio environmental watchdog community told me, “We have less and less and less information. While Pennsylvania’s website has its problems, it is 150% better than what citizens have access to in Ohio.”
Michigan’s Senate Bill 0431
Michigan’s Senate Bill 0431, introduced by Senate Democrat Adam Hollier in August 2019, was quickly reassigned to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Lansing, after being originally introduced in the Natural Resources Committee. This is just the next step in taking away local control from communities. The language of the bill on Line ten states unapologetically that:
“A local unit of government shall not, by ordinance or otherwise, prevent, prohibit, or deny a permit, approval, or other authorization for the extraction, by mining, of natural resources from any property, by a person with property, possessory, or contractual rights to do so … if … The natural resources are valuable …[and] Very serious consequences would not result from the extraction of the natural resources … For purposes of this section, a consequence is very serious if it substantially exceeds the ordinary impacts of customary mining operations, and poses an actual and unnecessary risk to public health, safety, or welfare that cannot be avoided or ameliorated through the imposition of reasonable controls or conditions on the mining operations.”
If you ask residents of towns like Ludington and South Rockwood, Michigan, what it is like to live next to silica sand mines, they’ll tell you they have very little faith in the recently rebranded Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (DEGLE), formerly the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). This is the same DEQ that was responsible for the Flint water crisis, in which several of its employees plead no contest to misdemeanors related to their actions during the crisis.
When I called Senator Hollier’s office and asked what the motivation for this bill was, his staffer told me that in their eyes, if a mine proposal were to meet or exceed the rigorous requirements of DEGLE, then they felt it was important that no further hurdles be placed in the proposal’s way moving forward.
Another concern of Michiganders that I have spoken to about this bill, and silica sand mining in general, is this stipulation regarding bonding and reclamation:
“The amount of financial assurance shall be the product of $1,500.00 multiplied by the number of acres disturbed by mining operations, but not yet reclaimed, excluding roadways, plant sites, and open water areas that will remain after completion of reclamation … Reclaiming slopes of the banks of the excavation not exceeding one (1) foot vertical to three (3) feet horizontal, measured from the nearest setback line into any area disturbed by mining operations.”
Most folks believe: A) A bond of $1,500 is way too low, considering all the long-term damage from surface mining; B) The carving out for roadways, plant sites, and open water areas leaves a tremendous amount of any mine’s remaining footprint devoid of any chance of reclamation, and ensures potential environmental and human health hazards in perpetuity, and; C) The one foot rise over three feet run threshold leaves a vast amount of any mine’s footprint extremely unstable.
The general sentiment among Michigan nonprofit organizations is summed up by a note I received from Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) President & CEO Conan Smith, stating:
“I believe this bill is part of an intrigue that we’ve been monitoring as two very rich political donors fight over a proposed gravel mine [in] Metamora Township … one who owns the proposed mine, one who neighbors it and is opposed.
We are, as you might imagine, opposed to this bill. The exemption of local control and [the] presumption that an extractive operation is so necessary as to preempt other local concerns and priorities is in itself sufficiently egregious for us. However, this legislation would also leave the extractive industry almost entirely free of citing regulation, as there is no detailed process at the state level either.
The philosophical challenge we face here, as in many cases, is the tension between private property rights and public health, safety, and welfare. With this bill, the sponsors want a presumption that any activity on private land is reasonable, unless it results in a ‘very serious consequence,’ (a term which has basis in current law that this bill also erases). The new definition of seriousness would essentially be something that is not a normal part of the extractive action. Thus, for example, hundreds of trucks rolling down a dirt road might not be a very serious consequence because that’s just part of normal operations …”
In a sign of how quickly support for legislation shifts, and how elected officials will use crises like COVID-19 to push what Naomi Klein calls “Shock Doctrine,” policy designed to facilitate a frictionless transition to “disaster capitalism,” MEC’s Policy Director Sean Hammond told us on May 21st of this year that, “Without the environmental community or local governments changing their positions, I see it very unlikely that this will move anywhere.” But just nine days later, MEC’s President and CEO emailed a group of those concerned about this bill, saying: “Bad news, friends. We learned yesterday that this bill has sudden new life and may be getting a hearing soon … We could certainly use help to dissuade lawmakers from taking this up.”
But much of the above has come from those at the policy level, living a healthy distance from Michigan’s mines. For the perspective of someone who actually lives next to a mine, I turned to a close friend and hero of mine, Doug Wood, and his wife Dawn, residents of South Rockwood in Monroe County, just a couple miles southwest of Detroit (Figures 3 and 4). Doug and Dawn sent me the following text regarding SB 0431:
“Ever since frac sand mining came to my community, the mine has expanded and accelerated, crushing silica 12 hours a day, right next to homes. It has been a constant battle to get the local government and the quarry to install air monitoring. Now the AGGREGATE industry is pushing to pass this law, Senate Bill 0431, which takes away all the local community’s controls, including [the control of] fugitive dust. I feel that if this law passes, it will be the end of a healthy, livable community.”
Figure 2. Current and Potential Silica Mining Activity, South Rockwood, Michigan, with Dawn and Doug Wood’s property in the southwest corner of the Light Green US Silica and Sylvanian Minerals Potential Polygon.
Figure 3. The Sylvanian Minerals/US Silica frac sand mine in South Rockwood, Michigan, in August 2017 (top) and June 2020 (bottom), with the Wood’s house to the left/west.
North Dakota’s Senate Bill 2344
North Dakota’s Senate Bill 2344 was first introduced to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on January 21st of this year by Senators Jessica Unruh (R), Dwight Cook (R), and Donald Schaible (R). The North American oil and gas industry knows it has a massive waste issue that it can’t seem to get its collective head around, and in North Dakota, it has countered this structural uncertainty by claiming that landowners do not own the “subsurface pore space” beneath their property, and that this pore space entitles an operator to inject waste into such voids, without compensating landowners.
As Dakota Resource Council Executive Director Scott Skokos told me, “What I’ve heard from attorneys is that this is a taking. Prior to the law change, the porous ground beneath you was part of your property rights, but now it is the government’s … The reason is that it is a taking without compensation! At the legislative hearings, I’ve never seen so many ranchers and mineral owners at the legislature. They thought that because they are a privileged class they would be listened to, and they weren’t. When they got railroaded, they said, ‘What? The government doesn’t work for me?’” Many that are following this bill and associated legal efforts to challenge it think it has a good chance to make it all the way to the US Supreme Court, because it renders the state’s Oil and Gas Production Damage Compensation Act toothless.
Skokos went on to tell me that in “a prior world, where landowners actually had agency over their property in North Dakota, the state’s Century Code clearly stated in Section 38-11.1-04 that landowners were entitled to damages equivalent to ‘lost land value’ and/or ‘lost use of and access to the surface owner’s land.’”
In Mosser v. Denbury Resources, Inc. in 2017, “Use of Pore Space,” and by association, SB 2344, began to percolate as a topic actually up for debate. The Mosser family did not contest the right of Denbury to dispose of fracking waste within their unitized area. This is only because they were hoping to get fair market value for waste disposal, if they would eventually have to incur the costs of damage to their property.
They alleged “claims for nuisance, for trespass and for damages under the Oil and Gas Production Damage Compensation Act.” Judge Charles Miller ruled in favor of the Mossers and stated clearly that surface owners did in fact own pore space; surface owners are entitled to the above damages resulting from pore space use; the surface owner does not have to demonstrate they are using the pore space; and most importantly, compensation per barrel that others are paying for fracking waste disposal may be used by landowners to determine damages.
This ruling was not to the industry’s liking, and they were determined to have the last word, so they worked with the aforementioned Republican Senators to write SB 2344, which contains tons of language regarding the use of pore space for natural gas and CO2 storage, as well as for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) purposes. Senator Jessica Unruh, when not working on behalf of the good people of North Dakota’s District 33, is the Environmental Manager at Coyote Creek Mining Company. Also, it is important to note that Donald Schaible is the sole sponsor of HB 1426, mentioned earlier, that increased penalties for riot offenses.
The most jaw-dropping component of SB 2344 is that it would add a new definition to the state’s Century Code for the term “land,” to be defined as the solid material of earth – regardless of ingredients – but excluding pore space! Yes, those little voids in the rock beneath North Dakotans homes, or maybe up to and including cracks in the soil during dry summers, would not be classified as land, and ipso facto would not entitle landowners to damages if such voids were to be filled in with, say, radioactive fracking waste!
One can only hope that the “get off my land,” fiercely independent, and at times, Libertarian facade North Dakotans like to display will roar when this bill gets traction. I mean after all, isn’t the motto of Tea Party enthusiasts and Second Amendment zealots “Don’t Tread on Me?”
This is Part II of a two-part series on concerning legislation related to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Part I focuses on repressive “critical infrastructure” bills intending to criminalize environmental protestors. Such legislation has already been passed in 11 states.
By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator
 Ms. Klein’s website describes the “Shock Doctrine” as the following: “It is a story about violence and shock perpetrated on people, on countries, on economies … [The Shock Doctrine] explodes the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically, and that unfettered capitalism goes hand-in-hand with democracy. Instead … it has consistently relied on violence and shock, and reveals the puppet strings behind the critical events of the last four decades.”
 For a helpful summary of what Mosser v. Denbury Resources, Inc. means to North Dakota landowners and the legal world more broadly, the reader can refer to pages eight to 11 of the University of North Dakota School of Law’s April 2019 “Energy Law Symposium”.
How the frac sand industry is circumventing local control, plus where the industry is migrating
What is nonmetallic mineral mining?
It was more than a year and half ago that anti-frac sand organizer – and movement matriarch – Pat Popple published a white paper by attorney Elizabeth Feil in her Frac Sand Sentinel newsletter. The paper outlined potential impacts of something the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) calls the “Marketable Nonmetallic Mineral Deposit Registration” (MNMDR) program.
The program, passed in 2000, is outlined in Wisconsin’s administrative code under Subchapter VI “Registration of Marketable Nonmetallic Mineral Deposits (NR 135.53-NR 135.64). This program allows landowners to register parcels that sit atop marketable nonmetallic mineral deposits, such as frac sand, according to a licensed professional geologist. The geologist uses “logs or records of drilling, boring, geophysical surveys, records of physical inspections of outcrops or equivalent scientific data” to outline the quality, extent, depth, accessibility, and current market value of the minerals.
If a mine operator is not the landowner, it must first coordinate registration with the landowner to:
… provide protection against present or future land uses, such as the erection of permanent structures, that would impede their development…to promote more orderly future development of identified nonmetallic mineral resources and minimize conflict among land uses.
Where is frac sand mining occurring in Wisconsin?
Photos by Ted Auch, Fractracker Alliance, and aerial support provided by LightHawk
Limitations of the registration program
The only requirement under this program is that the landowner “provide evidence that nonmetallic mining is a permitted or conditional use for the land under zoning in effect on the day in which notice is provided to the zoning authorities.” All registrations must be recorded in the county’s registrar of deeds 120 days before filing the registration. This process results in zoning authorities having a 60-day window to determine if they support or object to registrations in circuit courts.
Once counties are notified, they have no recourse for objection aside from proving that the deposit is not marketable or the parcel is not zoned for mining.
As Ms. Feil wrote, this program “preserves…[parcel] eligibility for nonmetallic mining in the future, even if a local governing body later passes new mining restrictions.” The former will have already been proven by the licensed geologist, and the latter is highly unlikely given lax or non-existent zoning in rural Wisconsin, where many land parcels are outside incorporated townships. Any parcel registered on this program remains in the program for a 10 year period and may be automatically re-registered under the initial geological assessment for another 10 year term “at least 10 days and no more than one year before registration expires.”
After this 20-year period, parcels start from scratch with respect to the registration process.
Initial inquiry and map methodology
As part of her white paper, Ms. Feil noted that in a quick check of her home county’s register of deeds, she found six nonmetallic mineral deposit registrations since 2000 in Trempealeau County and nine in neighboring Chippewa County. As a result of Ms. Feil’s initial inquiry, we decided it would be worth conducting a sweeping search for all nonmetallic parcel registrations in the nine most heavily frac sand-mined Wisconsin counties: Trempealeau, Barron, Crawford, Chippewa, Monroe, Jackson, Clark, Dunn, and Eau Claire.
“Wisconsin Nonmetallic Mineral Deposit Parcel Registrations and Likely Mine Parcels” Map
We were fortunate enough to receive funding from the Save The Hills Alliance (STHA) to conduct this research. We received “boots on the ground” assistance from the likes of Ms. Feil, Ms. Popple, and several other volunteers for acquiring hard copies of registrations as of the summer of 2018.
Our goal was to construct a map that would provide a predictive and dynamic tool for residents, activists, non-profits, researchers, local governments, and journalists to understand the future scale and scope of frac sand mining across West Central Wisconsin. We hope this will inspire a network of citizen scientists and mapping tools that can serve as a model for analogous efforts in Illinois, Minnesota, and Southeastern Michigan.
In addition to identifying parcels falling under Wisconsin DNR’s MNMDR registration program, we also used Wisconsin’s State Cartographer’s Office and Land Information Program “V4 Statewide Parcel Data” to extract all parcels:
- Currently owned by active or historically relevant frac sand mine operators and their subsidiaries,
- Owned by families or entities that have allowed for mining to occur on their property and/or have registered parcels under the MNMDR program, and,
- All cranberry production parcels in Wisconsin frac sand counties – namely Monroe, Jackson, Clark, Wood, and Eau Claire, with Monroe, Jackson, and Wood the state’s top producing counties by acreage.
The latter were included in the map because Wisconsin DNR identified the importance of cranberry bogs in their Silica Sand Mining in Wisconsin January 2012 report. The report defined the “Cranberry Exemption” as follows:
Some of the counties in central Wisconsin that are seeing an increase in frac sand mining are also home to much of the state’s cranberry farming. Mining sand is a routine practice in the process of raising cranberries. Growers use sand in the cranberry beds to provide adequate drainage for the roots of the cranberry plants. The sand prevents root rot and fosters plant growth. Chapter 94.26, Wis. Stats, was established in 1867 and exempts cranberry growers from much of the laws applying to waters of the state under Chapter 30, Wis. Stats. With this exemption in place cranberry growers can, in theory, mine sand wherever and however they desire for use in cranberry production. Some cranberry growers are taking advantage of the high demand for sand and are selling their sand on the frac sand market (emphasis added). However, the Department has recently determined that the exemption in Ch. 94.26, Wis. Stats., from portions of Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats., for cranberry culture is not applicable to non-metallic mining sites where a NR 216, W is. Adm. Code, stormwater permit is required. For those non-metallic mining operations where the material is sold and hauled off site, Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats., jurisdiction will be applied.
Finally, the last data layer we’ve included in this map speaks to the enormous volumes of subsurface water that the industrial sand mining industry has consumed since 2010. This layer includes monthly and annual water volume withdrawals by way of 137 industrial sand mine (i.e., IN 65) high capacity wells (Our thanks to Wisconsin DNR Water Supply Specialist – Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater’s Bob Smail for helping us to compile this data.)
We have coupled that data to annual tonnages in order to quantify gallons per ton ratios for several mines across several years.
Below is the completed map of current and potential frac sand mines in West Central Wisconsin, as well as high capacity wells. Click on the features of the map for more details.
We identified 4,049 nonmetallic parcel registration and existing sand mine operator parcels totaling 113,985 acres or 178 square miles spread across 14 counties in West Central Wisconsin (Table 1). The largest parcel sizes were U.S. Silica’s 398-acre parcel in Sparta, Monroe County and Badger Mining’s 330-acre parcel in St. Marie, Green Lake County. The average parcel is a mere 28 acres.
To put these figures in perspective, back in 2013 we quantified the full extent of land-use change associated with frac sand mining in this same region and found that the 75 active mines at the time occupied a total of 5,859 acres and averaged roughly 75 acres in size. This means that if current parcel ownership and nonmetallic parcel registrations run their course, the impact of frac sand mining from a land-use perspective could potentially increase by 1,900%!
This is an astounding development and would alter large chunks of West Central Wisconsin’s working landscape, dairy industry, and “Badger State” mentality forever.
Table 1. Nonmetallic or operator-owned frac sand parcels and their total and average acreage in 14 West Central Wisconsin counties
|County||Number of Parcels||Total Acreage||Average Parcel Acreage|
As for the “Cranberry Exemption” identified by Wisconsin DNR, we identified an additional 3,090 cranberry operator or family-owned parcels totaling 98,217 acres or 153 square miles – nearly equal to the acreage identified above. Figure 1 shows the extent of cranberry bog parcels and frac sand mines in Monroe, Wood, and Jackson Counties. The two largest parcels in this inquiry were the 275-acre parcel owned by Fairview Cranberry in Monroe County and a 231 acre-parcel owned by Ocean Spray in Wood County. Interestingly, the former is already home to a sizeable (i.e., 266 acres) frac sand mine operated by Smart Sand pictured and mapped in Figure 2.
In total, the potential for mine expansion in West Central Wisconsin could consume an additional 212,202 acres or 331 square miles. Characterized by dairy farms, and also known as The Driftless Area, this region is where Aldo Leopold penned his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac. To give a sense of scale to these numbers, it is worth noting that this type of acreage would be like clearing an area the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis.
Project limitations and emerging concerns
After completing this project, Liz Feil, Pat Popple, and I got on the phone to discuss what we perceived to be its limitations, as well as their concerns with the process and the implications of the MNMDR program, which are listed below:
1. Both Liz and Pat found that when they visited certain counties to inquire as to parcel registrations, most of the registrars of deeds had very little, if any, idea as to what they were talking about, which begged the questions:
- Why does Wisconsin not have a uniform protocol and archival process for such registrations?
- What are the implications of this program with respect to county and township taxable lands, future zoning, and/or master planning?
- What does this program mean for surface and mineral rights ownership in Wisconsin, a state where these two are coupled or decoupled on a parcel by parcel basis?
2. Liz and Pat felt they ended up teaching county registrars more about this registration process during this exercise than they ended up learning themselves.
3. Given the potential ramifications of these types of programs, such registrations should be centrally archived rather than archived at disparate sites across the state. Registrations should be explicitly bolted onto efforts like the aforementioned statewide V4 Statewide Parcel Data, given the fact that the MNMDR parcels are registered for 10 years.
The footprint of frac sand mining at any one point is just a glimpse into how vast its influence could be in the future. Mapping parcel ownership like we’ve done gives people a more realistic sense for the scale and scope of mining in the future and is a more realistic way to analyze the costs/benefits of such an industry. This type of mapping exercise would have greatly benefited those that live in the coal fields of Appalachia and the Powder River Basin as they began to debate and regulate mining, rather than the way they were presented with proposals as smaller discrete operations.
This piecemeal process belies the environmental and social impact of any industrial process, which frac sand mining very much is.
Industrial sand mining and high capacity wells
There is a growing concern, based on a thorough analysis of the data, that the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) industry’s unquenchable thirst for freshwater is growing at an unsustainable rate. Here at FracTracker, we have been quantifying the exponential increase in HVHF water use, namely in Ohio’s Muskingum River Watershed and northern West Virginia, for more than five years now. More recently, Duke University’s Avner Vengosh has conducted a thorough national analysis of this trend.
While the trends in HVHF water use and waste production are disturbing, such analysis leaves out the water industry uses to mine and process frac sand, or “proppant” in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. Failure to incorporate such values in an analysis of HVHF’s impact on freshwater, both surface and subsurface, grossly underestimates the industry’s impact on watersheds and competing water uses.
Figure 3 shows monthly and cumulative water demand of frac sand mining. The first thing to point out is the marked seasonal disparities in water withdrawals due to the fact that many of Wisconsin’s frac sand mines go dormant during the winter and ramp up as soon as the ground thaws. The most important result of this work is that we finally have a sense for the total volumes of water permanently altered by the frac sand mining industry:
An astounding 30 billion gallons of water were used between January 2010 and December 2017
This figure is equivalent to the annual demand of ~72,500 US residents (based on an assumption of 418,184 gallons per year). This figure is also equivalent to between 2,179 and 3,051 HVHF wells in Ohio/West Virginia.
Figure 3. Cumulative and monthly water demand by Wisconsin’s frac sand mine Hi-Cap wells, January 2010-December 2017
Figure 4 shows water use by operator. The worst actors with respect to water withdrawals over this period were two wells serving Hi-Crush’s active Wyeville mine that in total used 9.6 billion gallons of subsurface water. Covia Holdings, formerly Unimin and Fairmount Santrol, utilized 5.8 billion gallons in processing an undisclosed amount of frac sand at their Tunnel City mine. Covia’s neighboring mine in Oakdale, owned by Wisconsin White Sand and Smart Sand, used more than 2.5 billion gallons during this period spread across six high-capacity wells.
Figure 4. Total water usage by operator, January 2010-December 2017
These tremendous water volumes prompted us to ask whether we could determine the amount of water needed to mine a typical ton of Wisconsin frac sand. There are numerous issues with data quality and quantity at the individual mine level and those issues stretch from the USGS all the way down to individual townships. However, some townships do collect tonnage records and/or “Fees Tied to Production” from mine operators which allow us to quantify productivity. Using this scant data and the above water volume data we were able to determine “gallons to tons of sand mined” ratios for the years of 2013, 2014, 2015, and/or 2017 for four mines and those ratios range between 30-39 to as much as 521 gallons of water per ton of sand (Table 2).
Table 2. Gallons of water per ton of sand mined for four Wisconsin frac sand mines, 2013-2017
|Gallon Per Ton|
|Wisconsin Industrial Sand||Maiden Rock Facility||Maiden Rock||Pierce||98||90||66||—|
|Thompson, Terry||Thompson Hills Mine||Chetek||Barron||—||30||521||—|
|CSP||Rice Lake Mine||Rice Lake||Barron||—||—||—||104|
For far too long we’ve been monitoring frac sand mining retrospectively or in the present tense. We’ve had very little data available to allow for prospective planning or to model the impact of this industry and its role in the Hydraulic Fracturing Industrial Complex writ large. Given what we are learning about the fracking industry’s insatiable appetite for water and sand, it is imperative that we understand where frac sand mining will occur if this appetite continues to grow (as we expect it may, given the current political environment at the state and federal level).
Three examples of this growing demand can be found in our work across the Great Lakes:
1) With the new age of what the HVHF industry is calling “Super Laterals”, between 2010 and 2017 we saw average proppant demand jump nearly six-fold to roughly 25-30 thousand tons per lateral.
2) In Le Sueur County, MN Covia – which is a recent merger of silica mining giants Unimin and Fairmount Santrol – has plans and/or parcel ownership speaking to the potential for an 11-fold increase in their mining operations, which would increase acreage from 560 to 6,500 acres (if sand demand increases at its current clip) (Figures 5 and 6).
3) As we’ve previously highlighted, the potential outside Detroit, Michigan for US Silica to expand its current frac sand mining operations would displace hundreds of families. The planned expansion would grow their mine from its current 650-acre footprint to nearly 1,400 acres in the town of South Rockwood, Monroe County (Figure 7).
Given our experience mapping and quantifying the current and future impact of frac sand mining in states with limited mining activity, we felt it was critical that we apply this methodology to the state where industry is mining a preponderance of frac sand. However, this analysis was rendered a bit more complicated by the presence of the MNMDR program and Wisconsin DNR’s “Cranberry Exemption.” Adding to the challenge is the fact that many in Wisconsin’s frac sand communities demanded that we address the tremendous volumes of water being used by the industry and work to incorporate such data into any resulting map.
We hope that this map allows Wisconsin residents to act in a more offensive and prospective way in voicing their concerns, or simply to become better informed on how sand mining has impacted other communities, will influence them, and what the landscape could look like in the future.
It is critical that we see sand mining not as discrete mines with discrete water demands but rather as a continuum, or better yet an ecosystem, that could potentially swallow large up sizeable chunks of Western Wisconsin.
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
P.S. We’ll continue to add MNMDR registered parcels periodically. As parcels change ownership, we will be sure to update both the cranberry bog and industry owned parcel inventory in the comings months and years.
Guest blog by Christine Yellowthunder, an environmental activist, tree farmer, and poet
Most people living in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa have increased their knowledge over the past six years regarding the fracking destruction occurring across the country. The horror of fracking damages to life and land remain in the minds of most people who live near the massive land destruction from silica sand mining for what the unconventional oil and gas industry lovingly calls “proppant”.
Very often, we in the Midwest wonder if the rest of the country knows that this specialized form of silica sand mining destroys our rolling hills, woodlands, and water sources in order for silica sand to feed the fracking industry’s insatiable proppant demand.
Those of us who live in the direct path of this unhealthy silica sand mining need to make our stories known.
Bridge Creek Town, Wisconsin
The quiet abundance of life on an 80-acre tree farm in Wisconsin, fed by natural springs and wetlands, has nurtured every dream this prairie-raised transplant could conceive in the last 30 years. Six years of vigilance and rational debate has led to loss on every front when addressing the local government’s permitting of silica sand mines and its health and safety impacts on the community.
The largest sand mine in Bridge Creek Town lies one mile north of our tree farm. Two years ago, 40 acres of trees were culled for the installation of high intensity power lines to feed anticipated silica sand mine expansion under the legal provision of “Right-of-Way.” That document was signed by a previous land owner in 1948. No specific amount of land was specified on the original right-of-way, thus allowing significant legal destruction and permanent loss against the farm.
However, from a tree farm owner’s perspective, we have seen the variety and number of wildlife species increase at our farm over the past six years – likely because these species view our farm as an oasis, or what ecologists call a refugium, in an otherwise altered mixed-use landscape. The maximum capacity of the tree farm as a wildlife sanctuary is unknown. The adjacent silica Hi-Crush sand mine depletes the hillsides and woodlots in its path.
Hi-Crush Partners LP’s frac sand mine
The weekly blasting away of the hillsides sends shock waves – shaking homes and outbuildings weekly, along with our nerves. Visible cracks appear in the walls of buildings, and private wells are monitored for collapse and contamination. The sand mine only guarantees repair to property lying within a half-mile of the mine. The mine blasts the land near Amish schools and has had a noticeable effect on the psyche of countless farm animals. The invisible silica is breathed by every living thing much to the mine’s denial, with deadly silicosis appearing up to 15 years after initial exposure. Our community is left to wonder who will manifest the health effects first. Blasting unearths arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into private wells and into the remaining soil.
There has been no successful reclamation of the land after it is mined, with most residents wondering what the actual point is of developing a reclamation plan is if timely implementation and stringent reclamation metrics are not enforced. All useful topsoil has been stripped away and is dead with the land only able to support sedge grasses and very few of them at best. No farming on this mined land can occur even though these mining companies promise farm owners that when they are done mining, soil productivity will meet or exceed pre-mining conditions and much milder slopes than the pre-mining bluffs that contained the silica sand. Needless to say, land values of homes, farms, and property decrease as the mines creeps closer.
Explore photos of Hi-Crush Partner’s frac sand mine:
The people of Bridge Creek
Bridge Creek, as well as many other towns, have been easy picking for the mines. Many towns are unzoned, having little industry, a meager tax base, and a huge land area for a very sparse population. The unemployment and underemployment rates are quite high. Many residents in Bridge Creek farm, including a very large population of Amish who own a checkerboard of land used for farming and saw mills. Most of these Amish families arrived here from Canada and bought farms when the mid 80’s drought put small farms up for sale. The Amish community seldom votes, and their strong religious beliefs prevent them from taking a stand on any political issues.
Video of contaminated well water an Amish farm in Augusta, WI near frac sand mining
Scroll to the end of the article to explore more impacts to the Amish community
The original residents of this land, the Ho-Chunk people, are few in number and wish to protect their home lands that they had purchased back from the government.
Furthermore, a significant number of artists live in this community and have chosen to keep their homes and studios in anonymity. Thus, it is very difficult to amass any unity among this diverse population to stand up to the local government. Many long-time residents have the attitude that you can’t stop “progress.” I wonder if they know that this kind of progress kills the future?
Broken promises made by the mining company for jobs and huge payments to the initial land sellers have divided families and the community. Even though the mining boom was sold as a job provider, few locals are employed by the mines. There is little faith that the local government will provide for the safety and well being of its residents. Presentation of research, facts regarding aquifer endangerment and silica sand health risks, and proposals written in detail outlining potential protective ordinances have cost citizens, including myself, enormous amounts of time and money. The government responses remain the same. The sand mines have been allowed to continue destruction of the natural resources to no one’s benefit except for the enormous profits lining the coffers of the mining corporations.
Today, after six years of continuous silica sand mining moving ever closer, I can no longer fight logically and linearly to eliminate the greed, injustice, and usurped power head on. I fight land destruction as a different warrior.
I choose to protect this land and wood by nurturing its existence through planting more native trees, educating others to the wisdom and wonder of nature, by photo journaling the struggle for its survival and documenting this land’s story so that future citizens will know the truth. Moreover, I will continue to spread the message loud and long: stopping the silica sand mining will stop fracking.
These efforts may be the best that I can manage with a grieving heart. A fierce spirit will continue to share this story and those of others living in the Midwest where the silica sand laden hills roll under the top soil of our lives.
Christine Yellowthunder is an environmental activist of Lakota heritage and is also a tree farmer and poet. She lives on her farm with her husband Ralph Yellowthunder, a Ho-Chunk elder and Vietnam combat veteran.
The Amish community in Bridge Creek:
Listen below to in interview of an Amish farmer and clock maker who lives adjacent to the Hi-Crush mine, by Ted Auch, FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and local resident, Mary Ann O’Donahue:
The frac sand mine and its impact on well water
1:35 “We had no problem with the well until they started back here, and then from there on she was orange….in June, I put chickens in the barn and I put a new filter in the line…and in a month’s time it was stopped up”
4: 28 “They hauled all that toxic waste to the back of the mine and dumped it”
Water testing and dust in the air
1:35 “They test for magnesium and manganese and aluminum, metals…there’s like 5 pages of them, and iron, mercury, iodine…everything they say if it’s a certain color it’s high…It’s been going up ever since they started. The first test looked real good, before they started doing anything…and every year since, it’s getting higher and higher and higher…I don’t hear nothing from them, they take the sample and that’s it…They don’t come talk about it, they’re not concerned that it’s raising”
7:15 “I can have my cart sitting underneath the overhang by the shop and I’ve never had to worry about it being much dusty. But if it’s sitting underneath there over there in the summer time…it’s not there a day before it’s covered in it.” “And that stuff’s going in your mouth too.”
Hi-Crush pond and blasts from the mine
1:40 “Who knows what’s in the pond?” “Well, that’s the problem, all the chemicals they use they never tell anybody what they’re using to process this stuff, and it’s all in where ever it runs off”
7:15 “You should’ve been here Monday…It was a real hard blast… I had the engine running and was working in [the shop], and it was a very big shaking there, and I noticed it so it had to be a real big one and I came to the door to look and [the smoke from the blast] was still three lengths higher than the tree over there… Usually they’re doing it two times a week…I’m sure it [affected] my house, because my ceiling’s cracked more and more. There was one lady here once when it happened and she didn’t stay very long, she said ‘I’m going home, I’m not staying in this house'”
Impact to animals, light pollution, interactions with workers
0:50 “She was riding a buggy and…they just happened to blast about the time the horse was as close as it could be and the horse freaked out and ran and she couldn’t control it”
Relations between workers, local officials, and the Amish community
Accidents involving farm animals, workers, and residents
Photos of the property and workshop:
Feature image: Frac sand mining in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from LightHawk.
“The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)
I always tell people that you can’t really understand or appreciate the enormity, heterogeneity, and complexity of the unconventional oil and gas industry’s impact unless you look at the landscape from the cockpit of a Cessna 172. This bird’s-eye-view allows you to see the grandeur and nuance of all things beautiful and humbling. Conversely, and unfortunately more to the point of what I’ve seen in the last year, a Cessna allows one to really absorb the extent, degree, and intensity of all things destructive.
I’ve had the opportunity to hop on board the planes of some amazing pilots like Dave Warner, a forester formerly of Shanks, West Virginia (Note: More on our harrowing West Virginia flight with Dave later!!), Tim Jacobson Esq. out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, northern Illinois retired commodity and tree farmer Doug Harford, and Target corporate jet pilot Fred Muskol out of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.
Since joining FracTracker I’ve been fortunate to have completed nearly a dozen of these “morning flights” as I like to call them, and five of those have taken place since August 2017. I’m going to take the next few paragraphs to share what I’ve found in my own words and by way of some of the photos I think really capture how hydraulic fracturing, and all of its tentacles, has impacted the landscape.
The following is by no means an empirical illustration. I’m increasingly aware, however, that often times tables, charts, and graphs fail to capture much of the scale and scope of fossil fuel’s impact. Photos, if properly georeferenced and curated, are as robust a source of data as a spreadsheet or shapefile, both of which are the traditional coins of the realm here at FracTracker.
West Central Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines
August 2, 2017
It was nearly a year ago today that I met Bloomer, Wisconsin dairy farmer Ken Schmitt at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (KEAU) and soon thereafter jumped into Tim Jacobson’s Cessna 172 to get a bird’s-eye-view of the region’s many frac sand mines and their impacts (Figure 1). These sites are spread out over a 12-county region known as West Central Wisconsin (WCW). Ken hadn’t been up to see these mines since October of 2016 and was eager to see how they had “progressed,” knowing what he did about their impact on his neck of the woods in northern Chippewa County.
Ken is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and – befitting a dairy farmer – he is also one of the most conservative and analytical folks I’ve ever met. However, that morning it was clear that his patience with county administrators and the frac sand mining industry had long since run out. He was tired of broken promises, their clear and ubiquitous bullying tactics, and a general sense that his livelihood and the farm he was hoping to leave his kids were at risk due to sand mining’s complete capture of WCW’s residents and administrators.
Meanwhile Mr. Jacobson Esq. was intimately familiar with some of the legal tools residents were using to fight the spread of sand mining in the WCW. This is something he referred to as “anticipatory nuisance” lawsuits, which he and his colleagues were pursuing on behalf of several landowners against OmniTrax’s (f/k/a Terracor) “sand mine, wet and dry processing, a conveyor system to a rail load out with manifest yard” proposal in Jackson County, Wisconsin. I, too, have worked with Tim to inform some of his legal work with respect to the nuisance stories and incidents I’ve documented in my travels, as well as research into the effects of sand mining across Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Explore details from our sand mining tour by clicking on the images below:
Our flight lasted nearly 2.5 hours and stretched out over 4,522 square miles. It included nearly 20 sand mines – and related infrastructure – in the counties of Jackson, Wood, Clark, Eau Claire, Monroe, Trempealeau, and Buffalo. What we saw was a sizeable expansion of the mining complex in the region since the last time I flew the area – nearly four years earlier on October 8, 2013. The number and size of mines that had popped up since that trip were far greater than any of us had expected.
This expansion paralleled the relative – and total –increase in demand for “proppant” from the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) all across the country (Figure 2).
West Virginia Panhandle & Southeastern Ohio
January 26, 2018
On the morning of January 26th, I woke up on the west side of Cleveland thinking there was very little chance we were going to get up in the air for our flight with SouthWings’ pilot Dave Warner due to inclement weather. There was a part of me that was optimistic, however, so I decided to make the three hour drive down to the Marshall County Airport (KMPG) in Moundsville, West Virginia from Cleveland in the hopes that the “cold rain and snow” we’d been receiving was purely lake effect stuff and the West Virginia panhandle had not been in the path of the same cold front.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Moundsville airport I was wrong, and the runway was pretty slick around 8:00 a.m. However, the airport’s staff worked diligently to de-ice and plow the runway and by the time Dave Warner arrived from southern West Virginia conditions were ideal. The goal of this flight was two-fold:
- Photograph some of the large-scale high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) infrastructure in the West Virginia counties of Doddridge, Wetzel, and Marshall owned and operated by MarkWest, and
- Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant was doing a story on natural gas gathering pipeline’s impact on waterways, and more specifically the Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). She was looking to see the impacted landscape from the air.
Both of these goals were achieved efficiently and safely, with the resulting Allegheny Front piece receiving significant interest across multiple public radio and television platforms including PRI’s Living On Earth.
Explore details from our WV / OH tour by clicking on the images below:
On my return drive home that afternoon the one new thing that really resonated with me was the fact that hydraulic fracturing or fracking has come to be defined by 4-5 acre well pads across Appalachian, Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. This is a myth, however, expertly perpetuated by the oil and gas industry and their talking shops. Fracking’s extreme volatility and quick declines in rates of return necessitate that this latest fossil fuel iteration install large pieces of infrastructure like compressor stations and cracking facilities. This all is to ensure timely movement of product from supply to demand and to optimize the “value added” products the global markets demand and plastics industry uses as their primary feedstocks. This large infrastructure was never mentioned at the outset of the shale revolution, and I would imagine if it had been there would be far more resistance.
The one old thing the trip reinforced was the omnipresence and sinuosity of natural gas gathering lines across extremely steep and forested Appalachian geographies. How these pipelines will hold up and what their hasty construction is doing to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, not to mention humanity, is anyone’s guess; the data is just so darn bad.
March 5, 2018 – aka, The XTO Powhatan Point Well Pad Explosion Flight
Around 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, 2018, an explosion occurred at XTO’s Schnegg frack pad “as the company worked to frack a fourth well” in Powhatan Point, Belmont County, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8.
We were antsy to see what we could see, so we caught an emergency flight with Dave Warner, only this time under the LightHawk umbrella. We left on the morning of March 5th out of the all too familiar Carroll County-Tolson Airport (KTSO). Although we couldn’t get close to the site, there was a holler valley to the northwest of the pad that allowed us to capture a photo of the ongoing releases. Additionally, within several weeks we obtained by FOIA the raw Ohio State Trooper monitoring footage from their helicopter and posted this footage to our YouTube channel, where it has received 4,787 views since March 19, 2018. This type of web traffic is atypical for anything that doesn’t include kittens, the Kardashians, or the Kardashians’ kittens.
Explore details from our Southeastern Ohio tour by clicking on the images below:
Much like our flight in January the most salient points I got out of Dave’s plane thinking about were:
- Astonishment regarding the number of gas gathering lines and the fact that they seem to have been installed with very little-to-no reclamation forethought. They are also installed during a time of year when – even if hydroseed is applied – it won’t grow, leaving plenty of chances for predictable spring rains to cause major problems for streams and creeks, and
- Amazement over the growing inventory of large processing infrastructure required by the HVHF industry. This insfrastructure includes the large Mark West and Blue Racer Midstream processing plants in Cadiz and Lewisville, Ohio, respectively, as well as Texas-based Momentum Midstream’s natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio along the Carroll and Harrison County borders. That complex is affectionately referred to by the company’s own spokesman as The Beast because of its sheer size.
It is a big plant, a very big plant and far bigger than other plants around here… What’s really amazing that we got it up and running in six months. No one believed that we could do that. – Momentum Midstream spokesman Eric Mize discussing their natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio, Ohio.
LaSalle County, Illinois
May 24 & 26, 2018
Frac Sand Mines and The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Buffalo Herd, Franklin Grove, Illinois
It was during the week of June 20, 2016 that I first visited the frac sand mine capital of the United States: LaSalle County, Illinois. Here is the land of giant silica sand mines owned by even larger multinationals like U.S. Silica, Unimin, and Fairmount Santrol.
Fast forward to the week of May 21st of this year, and I was back in the frac sand capital to interview several folks that live near these mines or have been advocating for a more responsible industry. I conducted a “morning flight” with several journalists and county officials from neighboring Ottawa County.
LaSalle County is an extremely interesting case study for anyone even remotely interested in the food, energy, and water (FEW) conversation that has begun to receive significant attention in the age of the “Shale Revolution.” (Such focus is largely thanks to the extreme amounts of water required during the fracking process.) While LaSalle County has never experienced even a single HVHF permit, it is home to much of the prized silica or “proppant” the HVHF industry prizes. La Salle receives this recognition due to its location above one of the finest sources of silica sand: the St. Peter Sandstone formation. This situation has prompted a significant expansion in the permitting of new silica sand mines and expansion of existing mines throughout the county – from small townships like North Utica and Oglesby to Troy Grove 7 miles north on East 8th Road.
Meanwhile, LaSalle County is home to some of the most productive soils in the United States, due largely to the carbon sequestration capabilities of the tallgrass prairies that once dominated the region. In any given year, the county ranks in the top 5 nationally based on the amount of soybean and corn produced on a per-acre basis. According to an analysis of the most recent USDA agricultural census, total agricultural value in LaSalle County exceeds $175 million or seven times the national average by county of roughly $23 million.
Needless to say, the short-term extraction of silica sands in the name of “energy independence” stands to have a profound impact on long-term “food security” in the U.S. and worldwide. Sadly, this conflict is similar to the one facing the aforementioned West Central Wisconsin, home to similarly productive soils. The cows that feed on the forage those soils produce some of the highest quality dairy anywhere. (As an aside: both regions are facing the realities of their disproportionate support for Donald Trump and the effects his trade war will have on their economies.)
LaSalle County is also home to the 2,630-acre Starved Rock State Park along the south bank of the Illinois River. Much of the park’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) back in the early 1900s. Starved Rock is home to 18 canyons featuring:
… vertical walls of moss-covered stone formed by glacial meltwater that slice dramatically through tree-covered sandstone bluffs. More than 13 miles of trails allow access to waterfalls, fed season runoff or natural springs, sandstone overhangs, and spectacular overlooks. Lush vegetation supports abundant wildlife, while oak, cedar and pine grow on drier, sandy bluff tops. – IL DNR
Starved Rock receives more than 2.5 million visitors annually, which is the most of any Illinois state park. However, it is completely surrounded by existing or proposed frac sand mines, including US Silica’s Covel Creek mine. US Silica even recently pitched an expansion to the doorstep of Starved Rock and future plans to nearly engulf the park’s perimeter. What such an expansion would do to the attractiveness of the park and its trickle down economic impact is debatable, but LaSalle County residents Paul Wheeler and photographer Michelle McCray took a stab at illustrating the value of the state park to residents for our audience back in August, 2016:
Our flight with LightHawk pilot and neighboring Mazon, Illinois retired farmer Doug Harford lifted off from Illinois Valley Regional Airport (KVYS) at around 9:00 a.m. local time on the morning of May 24th. We had perfect conditions for taking photos, with no clouds and a comfortable 70-75°F for the duration of a two-hour flight. We covered nearly 200 square miles and ten existing, abandoned, or permitted frac sand mines.
Explore details from our Illinois tour by clicking on the images below:
All passengers were struck by how large these mines were and how much several of the mines had expanded since the last time we all flew over them in June of 2016. The mines that had experienced the greatest rates of expansion were US Silica’s LaSalle Voss mine along Interstate 80 and the aforementioned Illinois River mine along with Fairmount Mineral’s major expansion, both in terms of infrastructure and actual mine footprint, in Wedron along the Fox River.
Most of this expansion is due to three critical distinguishing characteristics about the industry in LaSalle County:
- The processing and export infrastructure (i.e., east-west rail) is in place and allows for mining to take place at times when other sand mining regions are mothballed,
- Due to the large aggregation of parcels for farming purposes, companies can lease or outright purchase large amounts of land from relatively few landowners, and
- Only the largest firms are active in the region, and with economies of scale they are not subject to the same types of shocks that smaller firms are when the price of oil collapses (like it did between June 2015 and February 2016). This means that the conflict will only be amplified in the coming months and years as the frac sand mining industry looks to supersede agriculture as LaSalle County’s primary economic driver.
However, all is not lost in North Central Illinois. This hope was stoked during our sojourn – and my subsequent trip in person – up to see The Nature Conservancy’s 3,600 acre preserve in Franklin Grove on the border of Lee and Ogle counties. As someone who is working hard to establish a small plot of prairie grasses and associated wildflowers at my home outside Cleveland, I was hoping to see what an established prairie looks like from the air. My primary goal, however, was to see what a healthy herd of native bison looks like. The Nachusa bison are unique in that they came:
… from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and…Unlike most other American bison, animals from the Wind Cave herd have no history of cross-breeding with cattle. Bison from Wind Cave are the species’ most genetically pure and diverse specimens.
We were fortunate during our flight to have spotted the heard at the western edge of the preserve in what volunteer naturalist, Betty Higby, later told me the staff calls Oak Island. While I am not a person of faith, seeing these behemoths roaming freely and doing what 20-30 million of their ancestors used to do across much of North America moved me in a way I was not prepared for. I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of awe and humility. How was I going to explain this beast’s former ubiquity and current novelty to my 5-year-old son, who shares a love of the North American Bison with me and would most certainly ask me what happened to this majestic creature?
Medina & Stark counties, Ohio NEXUS Pipeline flight
June 25, 2018
Ohio is currently home to 2,840 fracking permits, with 2,370 of these laterals having been drilled since September 2010. The growing concern around the fracking and petrochemicals conversation across much of the Midwest is the increasing number of FERC-permitted natural gas pipeline “proposals” the industry is demanding it needs to maximize potential. Most residents in the path of these pipelines have strong objections to such development, citing the fact that imminent domain should not be invoked for corporate gain.
Much like all of the other patterns and processes we’ve documented and/or photographed at FracTracker, we felt that a flight over the latest FERC-approved pipeline – The NEXUS pipeline – would give us a better understanding of how this critical piece of infrastructure has altered the landscapes of Medina and Stark counties. Given the population density of these two northeastern Ohio counties, we also wanted to document the pipeline’s pathway with respect to urban and suburban centers.
Our flight on June 25th was delayed due to low clouds and last minute changes to the flight plan, but once we took off from Wadsworth Municipal Airport (3G3) with a local flight instructor it was clear that NEXUS is a pipeline that navigates a sinuous path in cities and townships like Green, Medina, Rittman, and Seville – coming dangerously close to thousands of homes and farms, as well as many schools and medical facilities.
Explore details from our NEXUS Pipeline tour by clicking on the images below:
Will this be the last FERC-approved pipeline to transverse Ohio in the name of “energy independence”? Will this pipeline and its brethren with names like the Utopia and ET Rover be monitored in real-time? If not, why? It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we so flippantly assume these pipelines are innocuous given their proximity to so many Ohioans. And, as if to add insult to injury, imminent domain is invoked. All this for a piece of oil and gas infrastructure that will profit companies on the global market, with only a fraction of the revenue returning to affected communities.
I don’t know of a better way to understand the magnitude of these pipelines than flying over them at 1,000-1,500 feet, and I will continue to monitor and photograph oil and gas developments from the air with the assistance of amazing pilots like those affiliated with LightHawk and SouthWings.
To this end, I will be returning to West Central Wisconsin for yet another “morning flight” with the aforementioned La Crosse-area pilot and lawyer Tim Jacobson and frequent collaborator University of Wisconsin-Stout professor Tom Pearson. Our flight plan will return us to the northern Wisconsin frac sand counties of Chippewa, Barron, Dunn, Eau Claire, and if we have time we’ll revisit the mines we photographed in August of last year. We’ve been told by Susan Bence, an environmental reporter out of Milwaukee Public Radio, that she is trying to convince the powers that be at NPR in Washington, DC that this is a story the entire country should hear about. Wish us luck!
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator
- The first of my morning fracking flights was out of this airport back in June, 2012 along with the other passenger on this flight Paul Feezel of Carroll Concerned Citizens and David Beach of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Green City Blue Lakes program.
- The Conservancy initially brought at least 30 bison of different ages and genders to Nachusa. The bison graze on approximately 1,500 acres of the prairie and the site currently supports more than 120 bison according to site volunteer naturalist Betty Higby.
- I put quotes around this word because in my travels across Ohio interviewing those in the path of these transmission pipelines it is clear that this is not the correct word because ‘proposals’ implies that these pipelines might not happen or are up for debate. Yet, neither could be further from the truth with most folks indicating that it was very clear very early in their interactions with FERC and the pipeline companies that there was never a chance that these pipelines were not going to happen with “imminent domain for private gain” being the common thread throughout my conversations.
- Tom is the author of a recently published book on the topic “When the Hills Are Gone.”
- Aubry R. Letter to LaSalle County Board regarding “Blank Check Legislation” relative to frac sand mining across the county (PDF).
- Aubry R. Feb 26, 2018. Letter to LaSalle County Board regarding Fairmount Santrol’s Wedron frac sand mine expansion proposal (PDF).
- Giuliani D. Mar 15, 2018. County Board gets little zoning info (PDF). Ottawa Times (regarding Fairmount Santrol’s Wedron frac sand mine).
- Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). 2017. Monthly State Park Attendance for 2016 (PDF).
- Research Department of the U.S. Travel Association. 2017. The Economic Impact of Travel on Illinois Counties 2016 (PDF). Study prepared for the Illinois Bureau of Tourism.
Surface mining to obtain sand that is perfectly sized for use in the hydraulic fracturing process has been increasing in recent years. Over the summer, FracTracker had the opportunity to document a number of sand mining activities occurring in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin that supply frac sand to the oil and gas industry. Explore a selection of this imagery below:
Explore these and other frac sand mining photos and videos in our online album. The most recent imagery can be found at the bottom of the album. Additional videos are also available on this YouTube channel.
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All of these frac sand photos, and more, can also be found on our Energy Imagery page, organized by topic and also location.
If you have photos or videos that you would like to contribute to this growing collection of publicly available information, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, along with where and when the imagery was taken, and by whom.