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Demographics, Politics Hurt Wisconsin Sand Industry

According to Isiah Holmes, writing for the Wisconsin Examiner, Wisconsin’s frac sand industry appears to be migrating away from the state’s rural north, and toward more favorable territories in Texas

Not necessarily because the Badger State’s resources are depleted, or because the sand is of a lower quality. Rather, the coveted Northern White sands of Wisconsin and Minnesota are more expensive to transport and process.

The way Wisconsin’s political landscape has changed over the last few years likely hasn’t helped the industry either. Former Gov. Scott Walker proved himself a friend to the mining industry, by weakening regulations and accepting generous donations from it’s top companies. Walker included assistance to the sand frac industry in his budgets, and promised that fracking would enrich rural Wisconsin’s job markets.

Robert Rasmus, co-founder of the sand frac company Hi-Crush contributed $25,000 to Walker’s campaign between 2012 and 2017. Another $205,000 went to the state’s Republican Party, along with over $10,000 in additional donations from three of Rasmus’ employees.

All that seemed to end once Walker was defeated by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who declared 2019 Wisconsin’s “year of clean drinking water.” As the year drew to a close, Hi-Crush devalued two of its mines and laid off 37 workers. The company, based in Texas, has also come under investigation for dumping 10 million gal. of sludge into the Trempealeau River. Earlier in 2019, a sand frac mine owned by a different company spilled 400,000 gal. of sediment into a Jackson County creek.

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources once maintained an interactive map showing a breakdown of sand frac mine facilities statewide. However it hasn’t been updated since May 23, 2016. “When the interactive map was originally developed,” DNR Non-metallic Mining Coordinator Roberta Walls told Wisconsin Examiner, “our intent was to create a visual representation of industrial sand mines. Keeping this map up to date demands significant time and coordination, pulling staff away from core work. As such, we do not have a schedule for future map updates.”

At last count, there were a total of 128 sand frac facilities scattered around the state, with 92 of them active. Though news of the frac migration out of Wisconsin and further south may suggest that number is lower, it’s difficult to determine without precise data.

Brad Johnson, a DNR Wastewater Specialist in the Runoff Program, told Wisconsin Examiner, “We have between 25 and 30 active sand mines.”