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Giant mounds of sand sit by a rail spur at an 800-acre frac-sand facility run by Hi-Crush Partners in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. The facility can ship 10,000 tons a day, enough to load up an entire freight train. - 

The fracking boom has transformed rural Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, and areas like it. There’s no oil or gas here —  just sand, the kind oil and gas drillers prefer. Fracking has made sand a $10 billion industry, and publicly traded companies have rushed in, digging enormous mines. Trempealeau — on the western side of the state, population 28,000 or so — has more mines than any other county.

“The onset of industrial sand-mining pretty much flipped our county upside-down,” says Kevin Lien, who runs the county’s Department of Land Management. “And that’s probably an understatement.”

Pat Malone gives me a tour in her candy-apple red Toyota Corolla. She’s been here 26 years as a professor with the University of Wisconsin’s cooperative extension— kind of a full-time policy consultant to local government, on topics that include planning, health and economic development.

 In March 2010, a woman came into her office, worried about a new neighbor. “She was talking about this sand mine, and all these awful things that would happen,” Malone recalls. “And in my head I’m going, ‘It’s just sand.’”

Malone had seen plenty of sand mines. Mostly small and temporary  gravel pits  supplying local construction projects.

But when she looked at the permit application for this mine, it was different. Most were a few pages long. This one was a few inches thick.

In the next three years, the county approved 27 more permits like it.

We go past that first site and many others: Giant silos, processing plants and huge piles of sand. All on land that used to be rolling hills, covered with trees.

All of which have special value to people here, as Malone knows through the many surveys and focus groups she has conducted as part of the county’s planning process. “People really, really, really value the natural environment here,” she says. “Universally, top of the list.”

She says local residents pay a price for that value, in dollars. “If people took their job skills and went to New York or Chicago or Boston, they could make more money,” she says, “both in absolute and in real terms.”  

She gestures to the land around us. “But because they like this – these scenic hills, and the clean water, and the knowing who your neighbor is, and going and sitting in your patch of woods and hearing nothing  nothing! They’re willing to pay for that.”

In addition to the changing landscape, people close to the mines hate the lights at night, the noise from blasting.

Then there are trucks carrying out the sand. Most mines are permitted for at least 100 a day, and two-lane roads are the norm.

“You look at this road,” Malone says as we idle near a mine, “and you’re like, gaad. Do you really want heavy truck traffic coming up and down this thing?”

Last, but not at all least, people worry about the air and the water.

Sand processing uses some potentially harmful chemicals, and there have been spills.

“A couple of years ago, we had seven mines operating here,” recalls Lien, the county land-use director. “And all seven were cited …  for storm water-runoff events. All seven. So the track-record isn’t great.”

With air quality, the big concern is dust  tiny particles that can be deadly over the long term.

In 2013, the county board declared a one-year moratorium on new mining permits, and Malone worked with a committee that studied the issue.

“For some of them I think they got sadder,” she says. “And for some of them, they got angrier.”

Among other things, the committee’s 150-page report found that mining had affected wells near some mines  and wells supply the county’s drinking water. With air quality, the committee found there wasn’t enough monitoring to know how much dust residents might be exposed to.

A protest sign adorns a small apartment building near city hall in Independence, Wiscsonsin.

A protest sign adorns a small apartment building near city hall in Independence, Wiscsonsin. The city of Independence, with a population less than 1,400, has annexed two sand mines, which allowed the mines to avoid permitting restrictions imposed by the Trempealeau County board.

Malone takes me down County Road Q, where Hi-Crush Partners operates Trempealeau’s newest and biggest mine. A mile-long conveyor belt crosses the 800-acre site  and passes over County Road Q like a viaduct. It takes sand from the mine to a rail spur that Hi-Crush built.

Chad McEver, a Hi-Crush executive who develops and oversees new mines, says the conveyor saves money. “Not having to truck is a huge advantage when it comes to costs,” he says. Less diesel, no drivers.

He expects the conveyor is also less annoying for neighbors. “We plan on on being here for a long time,” says McEver. “So we want people to like us and want us to be here.”

That means financial support for local projects, and it means McEver tries to be responsive when neighbors complain. “If there are legitimate concerns or issues, we always take care of it, no questions asked,” he says. “We believe as a company in trying  to treat people the way we’d want to be treated, and I can honestly say that’s what we do.”

That doesn’t mean the neighbors are happy. They still put up with noise from blasting, lights at night and lingering concerns about air and water.

Water is the biggest concern for Bill and Angela Sylla, who live and farm across County Road Q from Hi-Crush. Their sons are 2 and 5 years old.

A pump feeding their chicken barn failed last summer, not long after the Hi-Crush mine opened. Bill says it was clogged with sand. Hi-Crush had the well tested, and traces of lead and arsenic showed up.

“When you put everything together, they said it’s an OK level,” says Angela, speaking from her kitchen table while her sons angle for her attention. “So it’s not unsafe, but it’s there.”

McEver says the mine hasn’t hurt the Syllas’ water. Pat Malone has looked at the data and says it’s inconclusive.

When Hi-Crush first showed up, some of the Syllas’ neighbors sold land to the mine, at a big premium. Bill had just moved home to take over the farm his family has run for generations.

Now, they’re isolated, sleepless, worried about the water.

“The depression a person suffers some days is astronomical,” says Bill. “Because you just don’t know where to go, what to do. What can you do? What should you do? What’s your best option? You don’t know.”

Through an agreement with the local government, Hi-Crush would buy the Syllas’ house for a guaranteed price, but not the $500,000 chicken barn the family installed a few years ago or the 200 acres they farm. For now, they’re staying put.

“These facilities are not going to make everybody happy,” McEver says. “There’s no question about it.”

On the other hand, he says, the mine contributes to the local economy. “Every day I think of new examples,” he says. “Our plants buying parts from the local auto-parts store, the local hardware store, or the local janitorial company that comes out and cleans the offices.”  

Malone ran economic-impact numbers when the first mine showed up, and found a modest contribution. A mine’s biggest expenditures  on heavy machinery  can’t be made locally. “You are talking about some big, honking pieces of equipment,” she says. “Well, there’s no Massive Pieces of Equipment retail outlet in Trempealeau County.”

Similarly, the profits go elsewhere, says financial analyst Brandon Dobell, who watches the oil and gas industry for William Blair & Co. “The sand’s being sold someplace else,” he says. “No one is headquartered in Wisconsin. It’s not like Texas, which has benefited from the gazillions of dollars going into these wells, and the taxes from the oil and gas.”

Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann