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Friday, October 19, 2012

What the Frack?

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I've ever seen
Give him two lips like roses and clover
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over

What the Frack?
Be careful what you wish for, Wisconsin humanoids.  You say you don’t like burning coal to run your air conditioners, so the power companies replace those by plants that burn natural gas.  

Enter frac sand mining in Wisconsin.  Sand mines are more prolific in Wisconsin than rats immune to strychnine.  This byproduct of the glaciers is an essential ingredient for liberating hard-to-get natural gas from underground -- the gas headed for those power plants.  To get the gas, the oil boys blast water and chemicals and sand – this ideal sand from Wisconsin – into fine cracks in the rock.  The sand acts like tiny ball bearings to keep those cracks open to allow the gas (or oil) to be captured.  Technical term:  hydraulic fracking.

They’re not mining natural gas here, mind you; they are mining the sand in order to mine the gas out of the ground (in the Dakotas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere).  Some of these sand mines are getting uncomfortably close to Wisconsin rivers.  But it’s not just rivers they’re messing with.  Sand mining is causing all kinds of grief for communities – truck traffic, noise and dust, shaky reclamation plans, and exploitation not just of a resource but of local decision-making. Other than a few trucking jobs and a few guys to run equipment and processing machines, virtually none of the oil-boom wealth of this sand stays in Wisconsin, and no one is talking about some kind of severance tax.  Why would we keep the oil companies from getting all they want?  

A frac sand mine sprang a leak and dumped sand and water into the St. Croix River last summer.  (Oh, by the way: Rat has it on good information that your natural resources agency in Wisconsin prefers the term “industrial sands” to “frac sand – SO jobby-sounding, isn’t it?  And it sure doesn’t sound like another four-letter word that starts with “f.”) That may not be the worst of it along what is a National Scenic Riverway.  Jerry Dorff, a good friend of this Rat and a river trip outfitter, told his town board recently, “Our concern is the noise from the mine and what the mine is doing to the value of the river."

“Value of the river….” 
That’s a hard one for those who see economic development as monolithic:  create jobs no matter the cost.  Can the value of a river be matched up against the value of sand that’s extracted and shipped away?

And what river is more valued in this state than the Lower Wisconsin Riverway?  It too has a sand mining proposal near its bank, in Crawford County not far from Prairie du Chien.

The Lower Wisconsin is a unique creature.  The land inside the river corridor is legally protected from activities that would be visible from the river.  Even a house has to have colors and windows that make it inconspicuous from the river.  While there seems little the Riverway can do to restrict this mine, this may well be the time to – sorry, Rat can’t help himself – draw a line in the sand to restrict this mine, or even prevent it from going in.  There’s more sand in that thar valley, according to geologists, and the Riverway could end up with several of these things.

The Koch Brothers – who else?
One last possible sand mining insult to the river is the possibility of sand trains, running day and night, on the track that runs parallel to the river from Prairie du Chien to Muscoda.  Wisconsinites will love the intrigue behind the railroad company that owns the track. It’s owned by Wisconsin and Southern, really a Kansas company (WATCO) whose biggest customers are Koch Brothers enterprises.  Rat saw track crews recently replacing ties on this line, and a train buff took pictures of a sand train on those rails, as recently as October 4. (Ya gotta love the photographer's attempt at making a train look sexy.)

Whether or not sand mines are developed on the river, it seems likely that the rumblings of sand trains may serenade Wisconsin river paddlers and campers soon.

Fellow river rats, we may have to get familiar with the state railroad commissioner.  I know, we’re supposed to love trains…but as I said at the top, nothing is clear-cut anymore. 

posted by the River Rat

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