May 23, 2013
How Rural America Got Fracked
Posted on May 21, 2012
By Ellen Cantarow, TomDispatch
Reclamation projects by mining corporations since the 1970s may have made mined areas “look a little less than an absolute wasteland,” he observes. “But did they reintroduce the biodiversity? Did they reintroduce the beauty and the ecology? No.”
Studies bear out his verdict. “Every year,” wrote Mrinal Ghose in the Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research, “large areas are continually becoming unfertile in spite of efforts to grow vegetation on the degraded mined land.”
Awash in promises of corporate jobs and easy money, those who lease and sell their land just shrug. “The landscape is gonna change when it’s all said and done,” says dairy farmer Bobby Schindler, who in 2008 leased his land in Chippewa County to a frac-sand company called Canadian Sand and Proppant. (EOG, the former Enron, has since taken over the lease.) “Instead of being a hill it’s gonna be a valley, but all seeded down, and you’d never know there’s a mine there unless you were familiar with the area.”
Of the mining he adds, “It’s really put a boost to the area. It’s impressive the amount of money that’s exchanging hands.” Eighty-four-year-old Letha Webster, who sold her land 100 miles south of Schindler’s to another mining corporation, Unimin, says that leaving her home of 56 years is “just the price of progress.”
Five months after they moved in, she learned that neighbors had leased their land to “a sand mine” company. “What’s a sand mine?” she asked.
Less than a year later, they know all too well. The Gregars’ land is now surrounded on three sides by an unsightly panorama of mining preparations. Unimin is uprooting trees, gouging out topsoil, and tearing down the nearby hills. “It looks like a disaster zone, like a bomb went off,” Jamie tells me.
When I mention her service to her country, her voice breaks. “I am devastated. We’ve done everything right. We’ve done everything we were supposed to. We just wanted to raise our family in a good location and have good neighbors and to have it taken away from us for something we don’t support…” Her voice trails off in tears.
For Unimin, the village of Tunnel City in Greenfield township was a perfect target. Not only did the land contain the coveted crystalline silica; it was close to a rail spur. No need for the hundreds of diesel trucks that other corporations use to haul sand from mine sites to processing plants. No need, either, for transport from processing plants to rail junctions where hundreds of trains haul frac-sand by the millions of tons each year to fracture other once-rural landscapes. Here, instead, the entire assembly line operates in one industrial zone.
There was also no need for jumping the hurdles zoning laws sometimes erect. Like many Wisconsin towns where a culture of diehard individualism sees zoning as an assault on personal freedom, Greenfield and all its municipalities, including Tunnel City, are unzoned. This allowed the corporation to make deals with individual landowners. For the 8.5 acres where Letha Webster and her husband Gene lived for 56 years, assessed in 2010 at $147,500, Unimin paid $330,000. Overall, between late May and July 2011, it paid $5.3 million for 436 acres with a market value of about $1.1 million.
There was no time for public education about the potential negative possibilities of frac-sand mining: the destruction of the hills, the decline in property values, the danger of silicosis (once considered a strictly occupational lung disease) from blowing silica dust, contamination of ground water from the chemicals used in the processing plants, the blaze of lights all night long, noise from hundreds of train cars, houses shaken by blasting. Ron Koshoshek, a leading environmentalist who works with Wisconsin’s powerful Towns Association to educate townships about the industry, says that “frac-sand mining will virtually end all residential development in rural townships.” The result will be “a large-scale net loss of tax dollars to towns, increasing taxes for those who remain.”
Frac-sand corporations count on a combination of naïveté, trust, and incomprehension in rural hamlets that previously dealt with companies no larger than Wisconsin’s local sand and gravel industries. Before 2008, town boards had never handled anything beyond road maintenance and other basic municipal issues. Today, multinational corporations use their considerable resources to steamroll local councils and win sweetheart deals. That’s how the residents of Tunnel City got taken to the cleaners.
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