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Frac sand boom creates thousands of jobs

A conveyor carries sand from the crushing area to a wash plant tower June 20 at the Preferred Sands plant in Blair. (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism photos by Lukas Keapproth)

By Kate Prengaman
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

BLAIR — Moses Wengerd wears a safety vest as he sits below a giant flat screen, monitoring every phase of the sand processing operation. He can remotely adjust temperatures in the drying plant or slow the speed of sand sliding down conveyors to the rail-loading station.

For the past year, Wengerd has been working right down the road from his home at Preferred Sands. He used to be a construction contractor until the boom in sand mining hit west-central Wisconsin.

“I helped to build it (the plant) last year,” Wengerd said, grinning, “and now I’m running it.”

Wengerd is one of 53 people working full time at Preferred Sands’ facility in Blair, a community of 1,300 people midway between La Crosse and Eau Claire. Todd Murchison, the company’s regional manager, said entry level wages range from $15 to $20 an hour. Preferred Sands also hires local contractors when possible.

“Mines always say, ‘We create jobs,’” Murchison said, “and we like to stick to that.”

There are no official employment numbers for the state’s rapidly expanding frac sand industry. But the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, using job-site estimates developed by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., found that when existing mines and those being built are fully operating, the industry will employ about 2,780 people — a sizeable number given the state’s overall lackluster job picture.

WEDC spokesman Tom Thieding said the number appeared reasonable, adding, “That’s a pretty significant number for growth from one sector.”

Wisconsin is the nation’s largest producer of the round silica sand used in oil and gas wells to hold open fractures in the rock so that the fossil fuels can flow out. The natural gas drilling process that uses the sand, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, faces growing scrutiny as lawmakers and regulators consider increased restrictions because of concerns about tainted drinking water and minor earthquakes linked to fracking.

Despite the recent rush for mining permits in Wisconsin — the number of permitted and proposed plants has doubled to 106 in the past year — sand is not instant money. It’s expensive to haul, and officials in counties including Chippewa and Wood are charging sand companies for wear and tear on local roads.

Moses Wengerd monitors the processing operation June 20 at the Preferred Sands plant in Blair.

If mine growth continues as predicted, the state Department of Transportation estimates the frac sand industry could generate as many as 18,000 truck trips a day to and from processing facilities. Those trucks are projected to fill an estimated 2,250 rail cars daily headed for drill sites outside of Wisconsin.

A sand plant by the numbers

The EOG Resources sand processing plant in Chippewa Falls is the largest in North America.

Here’s the EOG plant, by the numbers:

$65 million
Assessed value of the facility

Tons of storage capacity for finished sand

Yards of concrete used in construction

Gallons of fresh water used daily

Covered rail cars for shipping sand

Truck drivers moving sand

Number of train cars filled daily

Miles of covered conveyor belts

— Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In all, the DOT projects the industry will produce 50 million tons of sand a year. That’s enough to fill the nation’s tallest building, the former Sears Tower, 21 times.

Not everyone is thrilled with the sand rush. Some residents are concerned that sand mining endangers air quality, uses too much water, generates noise, puts heavy trucks on small roads and threatens tourism. In some communities, opponents protest. In others, they have taken stronger action.

A Buffalo County resident is suing the Board of Adjustment for issuing what he alleges is an illegal mining permit that violates the county’s zoning code and mining moratorium.

Opponents recently succeeded in blocking a permit for a frac sand processing plant next door to the Cochrane-Fountain City School, a grade K-12 school in Buffalo County.

And opposition to frac sand mining sparked a recall of a board member in Sumner, in Barron County. Sumner board member Jim Crotteau topped a field of three candidates Aug. 14 with 135 votes. Coming in second was Ed Werts with 131 votes. Since neither received more than 50 percent of the vote, they are expected to square off in a final recall election Sept. 11.

“In 30 years when they leave, and they’ve devastated a quaint rural environment,” said Pilar Gerasimo, a journalist and anti-mining activist in Dunn County, “how will that impact economic development?”

In January, EOG Resources opened the largest frac sand plant in the nation in Chippewa Falls. EOG employs about 70 people at its processing plant and 30 at the mine sites. The company also contracts with about 100 truck drivers, bringing the direct job total to about 200, said Charlie Walker, president of the Chippewa County Economic Development Corp.

In addition to creating jobs, sand mining contributes to the local tax base. According to Walker, last year EOG paid $1.4 million in property taxes to Chippewa Falls.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks all industrial sand mines together because the production process is the same. According to the BLS, Wisconsin had 276 jobs at eight facilities in 2008, the most recent year available. That’s up from 189 in 2002.

As of July 1, there are 86 mining, processing and rail loading facilities operating or in development in the state, plus another 20 in the proposal stage. WEDC estimates 10 jobs per frac sand mine and 50 to 80 jobs for every processing facility or combined operation.

Using the lower end estimates, once fully operational these 86 plants could employ 2,780 people, about 2,500 more than in 2008.

In Chippewa County, home to Houston-based EOG Resources Inc., mining companies hire local miners and local trucking firms to move the sand from mines to processing and loading facilities along the rail line, Walker said.

“There were 150 unemployed truck drivers in Chippewa County coming out of the Great Recession,” he said. “Now, we have a shortage.”

More train and truck traffic also means busier rail crossings and volumes on once-sleepy rural highways. In New Auburn, residents have been frustrated with long waits when trains block streets. Long-dormant crossings are busy again, creating a need for new signage and increased awareness.

“The mine-opposing people are looking to us as some higher authority to have a huge trump card, they are looking for a safety issue to stop a mine,” said Tom Beekman, the state Department of Transportation’s regional planning engineer for western Wisconsin. “The mining companies are looking for a blessing.

“We just keep watching the middle line. People ask me, ‘Do you think frac sand mining is a good thing?’ That’s not our job.”

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