National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 ‘Frac sand’ mining sparks debate in upper-Midwest counties

By Charles Taylor

Photo by Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Bonita Underbakke, a Fillmore County, Minn. resident, fears that frac sand mining will threaten tourism in Lanesboro, Minn. where she lives, which bills itself as the “Bed and Breakfast Capital of Minnesota.” She and least 50 others protest outside a frac sand industry conference in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Oct. 1, 2012.

​The U.S. shale oil and gas boom is resonating through the sands of the upper-Midwest. There’s a sand rush on, and counties in three states are grappling with how to coexist with the burgeoning “frac sand” industry.

Named for its use in hydraulic fracturing, frac sand — aka silica sand — is injected at high pressures to hold open cracks in underground shale formations, allowing the gas or oil to be extracted.

As with fracking itself, silica sand mining has raised concerns among residents in affected areas about heavy truck traffic damaging roads, air and water quality, and reclamation of the land once the mines close. Another parallel is that the activity offers the promise of economic opportunity in the mostly rural counties being targeted for mining, where non-farm jobs can be scarce.

Several counties along the upper Mississippi River are blessed with scenic vistas from bluffs along the river. Trout fishing, tourism and agriculture are important to their economies. A citizens’ group called Save the Bluffs has formed in Minnesota seeking to ban or heavily regulate frac sand mining there.

Photo by Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

A conveyor moves crushed sand to be washed and sorted by grain size at the Preferred Sands plant in Blair, Wis. in Trempealeau County.

“We have really a classic land use controversy,” said Dan Rechtzigel, chairman of the Goodhue County Board. “We have people who moved into an area because of the scenic beauty and because of the peace and tranquility… and then we have this very industrial, widespread, high-intensity use that wants to come in and coexist. That’s where the controversy is.”

Studies to date in Wisconsin differ on the industry’s potential economic impacts. For example, one, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, warns of “boom-bust” cycles and the possibility of costs outweighing benefits. Another, focused on Wood County, Wis., projects $161 million in economic investments in the county over a seven-year period. Related activities include sand-hauling to processing plants, and transport by rail and truck to end users.

Several Mississippi River counties in west-central Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota and Iowa are home to silica sand that’s ideal for use in fracking — because of its hardness and rounded grains. While there is no oil or gas fracking in this area, the sand is exported for use by wells in states like Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

“Three years ago, there were about five frac sand mines and five (sand) processing plants in Wisconsin,” said Tom Woletz, senior manager with Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. “Today, there are more than 105 mines and 65 processing plants.”

Across the river in Minnesota, the state Department of Natural Resources in 2012 gave a “conservative” estimate of silica sand mining’s capacity at “in excess of 12 million tons per year.”

A divided Winona County, Minn. Board of Commissioners voted 3–2 last month to approve a 19-acre frac sand mine, first proposed nearly two years ago — placing some 40 conditions on its operating permit. It would be in an agricultural district, where it is an allowed conditional use. Commissioner Marcia Ward was on the prevailing side.

“It’s not what I personally want or don’t want,” she said, “but a county commissioner is supposed to work with the zoning ordinance and apply it to an applicant.” Shortly after the project’s approval, a citizens’ group appealed the decision to a state court.

A few weeks later, commissioners in Goodhue County approved two ordinances to regulate the industry, covering air quality monitoring, setbacks from subdivisions, hours of operation and limiting to 40 acres the amount of ground that could be exposed at any one time, among other issues. Currently, however, there is a county moratorium on frac sand mining that’s due to expire later this summer.

Commissioner Ron Allen, who says he’s “totally against” frac sand mining would like the board extend the ban.

“I want to make sure there’s no health impact on our citizens before we start allowing this to happen. Once we start allowing it to happen we’re not going to be able to put the genie back in the box,” he said.

Bullet To learn more about frac sand, visit

BulletYou can read and hear a Minnesota Public Radio report about sand mining in the region here.

Other Minnesota counties with significant sand mining prospects include Fillmore, Houston and Wabasha. Alamakee County, Iowa is also in play. In February, county supervisors there unanimously passed an 18-month moratorium on frac sand mining, backed by an anti-mining citizens’ group. There currently is one active silica sand mine in the state.

In Wisconsin, the state’s association of counties created a Frac Sand Task Force, which over the past year developed a Best Practices Handbook it hopes counties, cities and townships will use to guide their deliberations. It is an outgrowth of the Wisconsin Counties Association’s (WCA) policymaking process resulting from resolutions introduced by member counties.

The task force has been meeting since last November, according to Jon Hochkammer, WCA’s legislative director. Since then, the seven members have toured at least three frac sand facilities and heard from an array of speakers, including state environmental and transportation officials, a geologist and a hydrologist.

“We worked very closely with the industry as well, the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association,” Hochkammer said. “We knew with that if county government and town government became too restrictive … that we would be preempted by the state.”

Lance Pliml, chairman of the Wood County Board of Supervisors, chaired the task force. He said some opponents would like to make the issue a referendum on the merits of hydraulic fracturing itself. He recalled one resident’s comment that by allowing sand mining, “We’re helping the devil to do his work in fracking.”

His county currently has three frac sand facilities in operation, and 14 have been permitted.

“The direction of the task force wasn’t to determine if fracking in itself was a viable procedure,” he said, “but is the extraction of sand and the shipping of it to the places they need it — is that viable? Is it economically feasible; and is it economically beneficial? And at the end of the day, the consensus was yes it can be.”

Kent Syverson, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is one of the experts consulted by the WCA Frac Sand Task Force. He said many of the areas with sand resources have declining or stagnant populations, “because there are just no jobs for young people in these areas.”

“What sand mining has done for some of these rural counties, it’s just given another potential avenue for employing some people,” he said. “These jobs are in places where there might not be too many other options, especially for good-paying jobs. So that has been a plus for these areas.”

But it’s a two-way street, says Woletz, the state’s frac sand expert: “There are going to be families up in some of these areas, brothers and sisters that had a farm that one sold off; the other one didn’t want to. They’re not going to talk to each other maybe for the rest of their lives. The same with some of the neighbors. It really has divided some of these communities.”

Sand ... Where?


frac-sandclose.pngThe states of the upper-Midwest might not be the first to come to mind when you think—sand.

Five hundred million years ago, much of the continent was covered by very shallow, warm inland seas, said Kent Syverson, chairman of the geology department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “On the beaches, the waves were constantly rolling these grains around making the sand grains nicely rounded, which is very important for frac sand”

The sand, shaped like tiny ball bearings, is used in hydraulic fracturing as a “proppant,” literally because it props open fractures in underground shale formations, allowing oil and gas to flow.

Although sand is found the world over, the sandstones of this area have several unique physical characteristics, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Sand usually contains many different rock types; however, silica sand is almost 95 percent pure quartz. It’s prized for its hardness and crush-resistance.

“They’re pumping this down under tremendous pressure,”said Tom Woletz, a senior manager with Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources.