The Blair Amish Project

Ok – there really wasn’t any Blair Amish Project; it just sounded funny as we where driving around the back roads looking for Amish and anything else of interest to shoot.  Cyndie and I set aside some time to get out of the house and away from the grind for a few hours this last weekend.  We set out course for Blair, WI to check out the Amish and the Big Sand Rush.

It is Beautiful country in and around Blair, WI.  It is well within the driftless region and the hills just rolled on and on.  Up and down and all around – from valley to valley we traveled on steep hills and sandy roads.

On this wonderfully balmy afternoon, a number of Amish children were ice skating on frozen ponds or even a puddle a the pasture.  Their tidy farms were easy to spot.  Mostly with a white, blue, green or grey roof.  Nothing too flashy, as they were simple and very well maintained.

As our luck would have it and most often does, we stumbled on a few abandoned places along the way.  We didn’t spend much time exploring as we wanted to explore the Blair area.

Big Sand is very much in the area, Badger Sand to be exact.  The sand rush has been in full-swing in this area for some time now.  This Amish community is not unlike the one in Augusta.  Blair has a mammoth open-pit sand mining operation right in their back yards as well.

I spent some time on Badger’s website reading about their environmental health & Safety.  They talk a great game about reclamation & environmental commitment; they even have some examples and they look great too.  I can’t help but to feel extremely skeptical about it all.  You can fill in the hole, make some grass grow and plant some trees, but what about the water shed?  This huge open-pit mine has a lot of wet lands around it as well as a few streams.  I hope for the sake of all in the area that live there and for those that enjoy its natural resources, that Badger Sand is for real where the environment is concerned.  Hopefully those streams and wetlands don’t end up like those in Barron County at the hands of Great Northern Sand (GNS) plant in Dovre, WI.  Their website speaks of their commitment to the environment as well.  I like their community involvement link.  GNS went out in the community and donated time rather than just cutting a check to the local school like High Crush did in Augusta.  One is perhaps more tactful and the other more blatantly obvious, but all of it is an effort to win over the community.  Sand is a very curious thing.

The nice day grew short of daylight in a hurry.  The 40+ degree weather was a wonderful bonus considering the sub-zero forecast only hours out in front of us.  The warm sunlight set the valleys aglow and cast some beautiful light.  As soon as the sun set the temp plummeted 20 degrees in about half as many minutes.  It was warm no more.

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The cost of an unsightly landscape companion

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
~Henery David Thoreau

Cyndie and I originally went to Eau Clarie County, WI (near Augusta) to back road Amish Country.  We found it wonderfully picturesque and relaxing; driving around that part of Wisconsin is absolutely great.  Then…BAMB; there it was.  It was 1/2 mile or better in the one direction and likely twice that or more in the other direction from where we sat in the car on a gravel country road.  Right smack dab in the middle of Amish farmsteads amongst the rolling hills was an enormous conveyor belt, an unsightly landscape companion in an otherwise beautiful Amish Country.

frac sand conveyor belt – from mine to rail

We had never seen one like this.  It took some examining to conclude its purpose initially.  It became clear as we followed it to the one end where the sand was being extracted.  I read somewhere that a conveyor was constructed to protect the Amish on these rural roads from big truck traffic.  Could there have been another reason for the conveyor?  I would think that not having to pay truck drivers to move the sand from the mine to the processing plant directly adjacent to the rail line would be a huge savings of wages and benefits.  These mining operations do not always create jobs as they claim.

Sand mining in Wisconsin, the “Sand Rush” as it is being referred to by many, has many residents of this beautiful state concerned.  You don’t have to look too far to see what all the fuss is about.  The Augusta community is one of several in Wisconsin experiencing this boom.

The recent boom in hydrofracking for natural gas and oil has resulted in a little-reported side boom—a sand-rush in western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota, where we just happen to have the nation’s richest, most accessible supply of the high-quality silica sand required for fracking operations. Unfortunately, most of that silica sand lies beneath our beautiful wooded hills and fertile farmland, and within agricultural and residential communities, all of which are now being ripped apart by sand mines interests eager to get at the riches below. This open-pit mining is, in many respects, similar to the mountaintop removal going on in Appalachian coal country—except that here, it’s hilltop and farm field removal. The net effect on our landscape, natural resources and communities is quickly becoming devastating.

In the past few months, the sand rush has come to my own rural neighborhood in Dunn County, Wisconsin, which is about an hour east of St. Paul, Minnesota. Like many residents in Dunn County, I’m concerned about the speed and intensity with which frac-sand mining interests are moving into our area. The proposals and applications for mines and related infrastructure are coming in so fast (our region has seen dozens just in the past few months), most small towns have been totally overwhelmed. Organizations trying to map and report all the activity literally cannot keep up with the incoming data.

~Pilar Gerasimo, EcoWatch

I think the last point that Pilar touched on is very disappointing, but not surprising.  Big corporations want to get in, get established and make millions before anyone has the time to figure out what the future may hold.  With this vast expansion of mines – at one point is the market going to become saturated and the industry no long as lucrative?   Even when county boards establish a county-wide moratorium on mine development, local town boards go ahead with exemptions in some cases.  These mining companies are throwing a lot of money around in these mostly small rural communities.  The land for the mine just South of August was purchased for $13.5 million.  An Amish farmer had this to say – “It would be hard to stay a good Christian with that much money.”  I suspect he is right.  In addition to the land, Hi-Crush has spent an additional $34.5 million on equipment, bringing the total cost of that mine and processing facility to $48 million.

If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we’d  all be millionaires.
~Abigail  Van Buren

Some Amish express their concerns while others say little as is their way.  In some cases, though, it really doesn’t seem to make a difference how much people voice their concern as the town boards have just passed things along.  If the land owner that stands to make a ton of money is related to someone on the zoning board – what’s the big deal?  What sense does this make?  Is someone getting paid off?  Are the Amish waiting for their turn to be paid?  Of the 24 homes within a half mile of the Augusta mine, 19 are Amish.  I would imagine that if the mine wanted to expand, the Amish would stand to make a significant amount of money.  Are they simply sitting quiet waiting?

Check from Hi-Crush to Augusta Schools

This isn’t the only Amish community in close proximity to frac sand mining. Not all areas have went against the moratorium though, despite the seminar in Colorado for a frac sand industry trade show called “Moratoria Madness: A Look at Wisconsin’s Regulatory Climate.”  This appears to be a guide of sorts for mining companies on how to deal with local communities and get them on-board with their way of thinking.  Cut the local school district a big fat check to gain favor with the town folk.  Interesting.  Host a job fair and have an open house and give away t-shirts are other suggestions.  Why do they have to push all of this through so quickly?  They know sand mining is hard on the environment and potentially puts lives at risk, however, it is boom-time for this sand.  The oil and natural gas fields are hungry for it.  Why else would they have to resort to less-than-honorable endeavors to get things done? Perhaps I have missed something here, but this all seems rather hurried and ridiculous.  I can’t necessarily claim that all of these mining companies are out for a quick buck; maybe some care, but it doesn’t really seem evident in anything that I have read or seen all Spring and Summer long – I have been looking.

View of the Augusta sand mine

Mines are required to file reclamation plans – the what, when and how they will restore the land when they are done mining.  I haven’t seen one that said they would put the hills back.  They will be gone.  Should they have to put the hills back?  As the land owners, isn’t it their right to forever change the lay of their land if they wish?

I understand that the demand is now – hence the urgency, but I don’t think that negates the very valid concerns of many that are so readily dismissed.  The water used in the sand processing is unbelievable   Mines employ high-capacity wells to process/wash sand.  The sand mine not far from where I live uses the same amount of water that the entire city I live in does in a day (pop 16,459).  I believe the figure I read was approximately 1 million gallons.  That seems like an awful lot of water…per day.  The use of chemicals in this process is troubling as well.  I think all of the concern warrants a detailed look at what is possible before something very wrong and irreversible is done.

I’ve heard people argue that gravel mining is no different that mining silaca sand.  There is a big difference; it’s called partial size.  These mines are not always able to extract an optimal size; some plants employ a crusher.  The crushing processes produces this dangerous dust as does handling and transporting it – by truck or conveyor.

SILICA SAND GRAINS are made up of crystalline silica particles. When silica sand grains are broken (fractured) from blasting, abrasion, or crushing, tiny particles of crystalline silica “dust” are produced.  Some of these particles are so small they can’t be seen with the naked eye,  so light-weight  they can stay in the air for a long time and can travel long distances. The technical term for these very small particles is……

RESPIRABLE CRYSTALLINE SILICA. These very tiny, sharp silica particles are small enough to be breathed deep into our lungs.  Once they settle in the lungs, they never dissolve and never leave. Some people call Respirable Crystalline Silica “Silica Dust”.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that Respirable Crystalline Silica is a Carcinogen, or cancer causing substance.  Prolonged or repeated exposure to fine airborne crystalline silica dust may cause severe scarring of the lungs, a disease called silicosis.  Silicosis can develop quickly or over many years, depending upon the amount of silica a person breathes and for how long.

~www.ccc-wis.com

And if there isn’t enough to consider already with health and ground water concerns – there is an endangered butterfly in harm’s way.  The Karner blue butterfly’s range occupies much of the same area sand does.  This butterfly lives much of its life on wild lupine.

Karner blue

Described in 1944 by the writer and butterfly expert Vladmir Nabokov, the Karner blue was once abundant from Maine to Minnesota. But its population diminished from tens of thousands to hundreds as its habitat disappeared.

The federal government declared the Karner blue an endangered species in 1992 because much of its habitat is gone — except in Wisconsin. Here, lupines are plentiful. A “high probability range” of area deemed at least 50 percent likely to have Karners covers 1.9 million acres and includes parts of 19 counties.  And to kill a Karner blue without a permit violates federal law.  Mining companies can apply for a permit from the Department of Natural Resources to legally destroy Karner blues in its operations.  Huh?

The push-back on halting development and taking a serious look at this is the prospect of jobs.  These sand mining companies roll into town, buy up land and invests millions of dollars.  One area in particular, Barron County, WI, had 11 percent unemployment at one point during the recession   But Since 2010, sand mining companies are making this predominantly rural county’s economic outlook a bit better.  The boom is still too new to calculate the number of jobs gained.  On average, a typical mine may employee 10-20 people, while 40-50 people work at a typical procession plant.  These numbers obviously vary depending on the makeup of the operation (conveyor belts vs. trucks to haul sand).

barn billboard, Hwy 58 S., Red Wing, MN

I certainly don’t claim to have any answers to all of these issues.  I just know that there are things going on that do not seem right.  This is happening all over Western Wisconsin and it has hit my front door as well here in Red Wing, Minnesota.  The City of Red Wing had a moratorium on the industry, but it expired yesterday (Oct. 28) and can’t be renewed.  The newly adopted,  Ordinance No. 39, Fourth Series, ordinance amending chapter 11 of the zoning land use regulations, establishes an Open Space Preservation district effectively prohibits resource extraction land use within the City of Red Wing.  I need to review this document further, but it appears the city is all over preventing mining in the area.  I am not clear where Goodhue County is as whole on this issue, so I will have to continue researching.  I believe the perspective area is along Hill Valley Road in Hay Creek Township.

One company that would like to start is Windsor Energy Resources Inc., based in Oklahoma City, which is exploring for oil in the Permian Basin of west Texas. Its Windsor Permian subsidiary last year paid $2.6 million for 155 acres of woods, cornfields and bluffs two miles south of Red Wing near a small housing development and a protected trout stream in hopes of mining it for silica sand.

“We’re disappointed that the county board decided to impose a moratorium but we intend to comply with all the regulations that exist in Goodhue County for the future work that we do,” Chip Krohn, a geologist with the company, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. He said the company believes the county’s existing regulations are “more than sufficient” for the board to decide whether to approve or reject permits.

~CBS Minnesota

The Diamond Bluff (Wisconsin) community just across the river from Red Wing has about lost their battle as far as I can tell.  All of these concerned people cannot be wrong.  I really think this sand business needs to slow down.  I won’t leave you with much wonder as to which side I am on in all this.  I am very much against this industry and using this sand for frac mining for oil and natural gas.  There has to be a different away.  I know the countryside doesn’t exist solely for my photographic and viewing enjoyment either, but I am used to it and would like to see it remain intact – as would countless others.  If you are concerned about frac sand mining and it is being proposed or is happening already in your area – get involved and speak up!  A small few and their pursuit for quick money should not just run all over so many concerns.

It is hard to contend against one’s heart’s desire; for  whatever it wishes to have it buys at the cost of soul.
~Heraclitus

It is easy to sit back and expect that land owners do not sell out to these mining companies.  I imaging it is very different being the land owner faced with the question of farming another 10 years or selling out and retiring.  I must admit, the money would be very attractive.  The thing is, if you don’t sell, your neighbor may and then there you will sit.  You may be unable to sell your land later on after the mining is done.  There is no single and/or easy answer here that works for everyone.  There are some though that have rejected these mining companies and I say good for them, but I cannot fault those that take the money either.  If you are faced with providing for your family, would you not do so?  I think we all would; especially in this economy.

Are we willing to pay a higher price for gas to save our hills,  bluffs and generally beautiful countryside?  Everything in life has a cost and that is what I am talking about here and what everyone has to consider.  What are you willing to pay?

**If you are not familiar with what hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is or how the silica sand is used, please see these links.  See how many buzz words you can identify and how they over-emphatic how safe and clean these practices are.

Here are a few photos of the beautiful Amish countryside in Eau Claire County, WI along with the sand mining operation in the area.