Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tunnel City Sand Mine Information Meeting

An overflow crowd attended an informational meeting Unimin held last night about the new sand mine. The main presenters from Unimin were Drew Bradley, senior VP of operations; Steve Groening, special projects manager, who is the on-the-ground guy for Tunnel City and did most of the presentation, Chuck Collins, also a VP and Michael E. Wallenius, another VP. Their land man, who acquired property, Bill Rogers, was also there.

Town of Greenfield residents learn about their new neighbor: a sand mine.
Here were their major points. 

* They appear to face few regulatory hurdles and have apparently achieved the one major one: filing their reclamation plan with Monroe County. The state of Wisconsin has no mining regulations, they say. They will do some of their own environmental evaluations but there is no environmental impact study required. Water is the main concern--wetlands, and streams. It must also get an air permit. 

* The mining will take place above the water table as the plan is currently envisioned. But they stressed that all of this is very preliminary, they say they have been in the area only for a few weeks, so there’s still much they just don’t know. They say they will do hydrologic studies. Some locals expressed their concern, saying that a tunnel operation in previous years left them with sand in their wells.

* Will they need high capacity wells? They don’t know. They say if they do use water they will have a pond that they will line, recycle and reuse. They use the water to wash and “size” the sand. They don’t know how much water they’ll use.

* Perch springs--basically higher springs--would be affected but they say only the springs on the actual sand mine property would be affected. 

* Spring Bank is well below the elevation of any land they’ll use, Unimin says, and they say that means its water will not be affected.

* Noise. They say the processing plant will be completely enclosed and say we will not hear any noise from that. However, they did not address the noise of excavating equipment and many at the meeting expressed concern about that, citing the way everyone can hear the tractor pull. 

* Lighting. They direct lighting into operations sites and use shields and deflectors to limit that impact. 

* Possible challenge: the Northern Natural Gas line dead ends here. It is fairly maxed out and that fact was a deal killer for a 24x7 glass factory. Unimin says it is aware of that. 

* Plant location. They will try to somewhat camouflage it with trees or perhaps having it partially hidden by a ridge. 

* Dust. They say they use state-of-the art dust collectors and emission control. All we’ll see is steam escaping the plant, that steam is part of the process of removing moisture to the sand. Unimum is a self-described leader in dust collection. They said that wind won’t blow any dust because the only exposed part will be the active mine site. They did not make clear how wind will not blow sand and dust from the active mine site.

* PM2.5 They says these regulations are brand new, they don’t have to monitor for it, but it is not a concern because of their dust and emission controls. 

* They expect to spend $100 million, pump $15 to $20 million into the local economy annually and provide 50 to 70 full-time jobs--how many of those will be filled by locals was unclear.

Local TV crews interview Unimin's Bradley
* Impact on adjacent land values. Two people expressed concern about the sand mine devaluing their homes. Bradley’s initial response: people lose money on their homes for many reasons. He lost a lot on his. Another man said that he was about to retire but now fears that his home, which essentially represents his retirement, will be so devalued that he can’t retire. Bradley said that overall, Unimin’s mines have a positive impact on local economies. Others said that they did not believe that would help people whose homes are right next to the green line, referring to the green line sketched on a map the Unimin executives presented at the meeting.

* When done--and this is a 20- or 30-year operation--the area will still have contoured topography but it won’t be a replica of what it was. They will reclaim the land and seek local input as to how they revegetate--trees, plants, etc.

* They’re the biggest operator in the business, they say. This 500-acre (maybe bigger) mine would be their biggest and would produce one to two million tons of sand a year. Tunnel City sits on a veritable gold mine of the right kind of sand for “frac sand” used for extracting natural gas and oil. It’s also next to a railroad, which makes it equally attractive. They bought a 20-acre packet of land, did initial drilling, the results were favorable. Then they started buying up large tracts of land--100 acres and more--and then smaller. As far as acquisitions go, “We are not by any means finished with that process,” Groening said. They bought the land under the name Eagle Land Investment to prevent their competitors from moving in and grabbing the land out from under them, not to deceive locals, they said. 

* Groening said that Unimin is the most conscientious player in the business. It’s the biggest, it’s the most professional and it is not a fly by night operation. It participates in environmental organizations, he said. 

* Unimin is a conscientious mining company, they say, one that works to reclaim land. Their process at Tunnel City would be to deforest (they’re not sure how they would get the trees out yet but say they’ve gotten calls from locals who want to be hired to do the job), take off the overlayer above the sand from one section, take out actual sand from another, and start reclaiming the land on already mined areas. The idea is not to leave a massive black hole. They will have buffer zones around the property, they said, they won’t mine right up to property lines. 

* There was some criticism of town board chair Steve Witt; Unimin stressed that Witt has not been involved in any sales at all, although there have been transacations with family members.

* Many in the audience expressed concern about the quality of life in the area--noise, traffic, impact on hunting, fishing, springs.

One member of the audience was the most eloquent: “There’s great trout fishing, graet hunting, springs all over the place, if you do your study, what if some trout streams dry up? What if you do have some impact after you spend your $100 million? What about us little guys?”

Bradley: “If we turn out to be wrong and we have impact, you do have recourse, we can’t go mess with your property.”

One man in the crowd said: “Bow hunting ain’t going to be worth a dime any more.” 

The Monroe County Land Conservation office recommends that everyone have their wells inspected now so you have a benchmark to measure against in the future to demonstrate any impact.

Sand Mining Backgrounder

Here's local coverage of other sand mines in our area.

The best coverage of the issue in Monroe County is in the June 16th edition of the County Line ( Editor Karen Parker covers in detail the operations in four different locations in northern Monroe County. For Town of Greenfield residents, the most pertinent covers the Valley Junction sand mine (pictured on this site’s home page), just ten miles away from Tunnel City. Sand mining, which extracts sands that companies can use to fracture rock and extract natural gas and oil, has become a veritable gold rush in this era of soaring fuel prices.At the same time, it's a highly controversial practice. 

In addition, here's other coverage of the issue. 

Minneapolis Star Tribune, 6/20/11, reports “a contentious land rush” from Black River Falls to Red Wing and down the Mississippi for open-pit silica sand mining to support “fracking.” Concerns are silica dust (“causes a number of lung diseases, including cancer”), water use (processing at one mine requires 600,000 gallons/day, “although much of it will be recycled on site”), trucking and blasting. Mines are “largely unregulated” and WI has no health standards for silica dust. Describes a failed attempt to block a sand mine in Chippewa Falls and a current effort in Red Wing. Reported by Josephine Marcotty, 612-673 7394

“NineNews” 6/16/11, says Unimin, “now known by the name of its parent company, Sibelco, faces three criminal charges that it illegally removed construction sand from its mineral sands mines” on Stradbroke Island, Australia.

The Chippewa Enquirer, 6/29/11, reports that a land-rights dispute over a silica sand mine has been appealed to the state Supreme Court. Landowners in the town of Cooks Valley are disputing a local ordinance regulating sand mines. Refers to related case in town of Howard.

Further coverage of the Cooks Valley case from the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram notes:
“Sand mining sites are popping up across Chippewa County:
-Preferred Sand has a permit to mine 225 acres in the town of Cooks Valley.
-Chippewa Sand Company has a permit for a 176-acre site in the town of Cooks Valley.
-EOG Resources has a permit for a 185-acre site in the town of Howard.
-Superior Silica Sands has a 135-acre site in the town of Auburn.
-Larry Boese has a 28-acre site in the town of Auburn.”

Winona Daily News, 6/30/11, reports on sand mines in Trempeleau County; notes that per permit application for one mine, “about 180 trucks will drive to and from the mine each day.” Quotes Kevin Lien, director, county Department of Land Management: “I foresee a lot of degradation of our public road system. I see traffic conflicts and I see a depletion of our natural resources.” Mine would be operated for 20 years; conditions include “installing monitors to detect silica dust—a known carcinogen.”  At dispute is Lien’s request that the miner “install a clarifier system to prevent groundwater contamination. The committee opted to require the company to include four ponds lined with two feet of clay, which Lien said are at risk of leaking.” Company apparently is contesting this requirement.

Superior Telegram, 6/30/11, reports on sand mining concerns in Wood and Pepin counties. “Since much of Wood County is unzoned, non-metallic mining companies need only file a land reclamation permit. The permit is basically a pledge from the company to return the land to its pre-mining condition after they’re finished. Without zoning, other issues like noise, dust and damage to roads cannot be regulated.”

Red Wing Republican Eagle, 6/23/11, reports on efforts to impose a mining moratorium by “Citizens Against Frac Sand Mining, a group of hundreds of concerned citizens who have signed petitions and held meetings in hopes of educating the public and ultimately preventing a silica sand mine from being established in Hay Creek Township.” Says concerns include “ruining the area's natural beauty and geography, residents developing diseases from breathing in silica dust, water quality being affected and roads being destroyed by trucks hauling extracted sand.” "We need to proceed cautiously on this very important issue. We do not want to be the next Chippewa Falls," citizen Lorrie Sonnek said,


Phildelphia Inquirer, 6/26/11, explains use of sand in fracking, says an alternative is being devised. “Such is the nationwide frenzy to drill for oil and natural gas in unconventional rock formations like shale that demand for proppant has gone bonkers. A typical Marcellus well now consumes 5 million pounds of sand, enough to fill 25 railcars. It all comes from Midwestern sand mines.”

New York Times article, 6/26/11, reports doubts about the practice of fracking. “…the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells.”

Unimin Corp., of New Canaan, Conn., in 2009 announced a sand mine expansion in Arkansas; described itself as “North America's largest supplier of downhole fracturing and gravel packing sands. The Company's frac sand expansion in Arkansas is the latest in a series of investments at its plants in Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Minnesota to help secure the nation's energy independence.” Jeff Hunt, Corporate Customer Services, 203-243-9004,