(first published on WIvoices.org)
While interviewing Jim Laskin about frac sand mining in Glenwood City, he was insistent that we travel 40 miles east to witness a full-fledged silica frac sand mining district enveloping New Auburn, WI. With 7 mines within a 5 mile radius, we decided to take Jim’s advice. So, we loaded up our camera gear and hit the road. The sand rush is transforming Wisconsin in many ways. With 87 operational mines and dozens more proposed, we wanted to experience what it felt like to live in one of those areas.
It was a mostly clear, warm September day. Most of the drive was what one would expect in rural Wisconsin in early fall: corn fields tall and near harvest, green rolling hills, landscape littered with farm houses and silos, occasional deer grazing near the wooded edges, and birds of all kinds abundant.
Then we came around a rolling curve and the landscape abruptly changed. This was the first frac sand hill we discovered, so we stopped our car to film it. There was what can best be described as an invisible film in the air. I could feel it on my lips almost immediately. The substance was tasteless, yet I compulsively licked it off and spit it in the ditch every few minutes. Within 20 minutes any bare skin on my body felt dirty, yet I still couldn’t see anything.
So I decided to run my hand across the hood of the car. There it was. This is the amount of dust collected on the hood of our car parked for 25 minutes, 1/4 mile away, from a silica frac sand mine near New Auburn, WI.
Frac sand processing facility near New Auburn, WI.
Roads busy with trucks carrying silica frac sand between mines and nearby processing facilities near New Auburn, WI.
This worker is attempting to keep the roads clean by sweeping the fine dust that builds up and covers every surface in the area. Our presence didn’t go unnoticed. Contrary to the open-armed gesture, our cameras weren’t exactly welcomed.
We decided to move on a bit too hastily and some equipment blew off the roof of the car! In this photo, the photographer is scrounging for lost equipment with frac sand trucks bumping by….
As we drove through the area, we noticed a woman attempting to walk her two dogs on the side of the road with trucks rumbling by beside her. By chance we pulled up and asked her if she’d be willing to give us an interview about life inside a mining district. Lack of preparation was her only hesitation, but her strong feelings persuaded her to speak to us.
Brenda Tabor-Adams standing in her once-quiet, rural small farm, which has now turned into a bustling road with hundreds of trucks carrying sand passed her house daily. She worries about her 22-month-old son sleeping inside, growing up surrounded by mines. Brenda said that the dust I noticed earlier is a persistent problem that invades virtually every area of her family’s life, from hanging clothes, taking her child outside, to opening her windows. She and her remaining neighbors feel “trapped” on their own property. She offers a compelling first hand account of life inside a silica frac sand mining district, which we will publish in its entirety soon.
On our way home, we came over a hill on WI HWY 64 traveling west. This is quickly becoming a common sight in Wisconsin – a disappearing green hill, replaced by sand dunes.
STAY TUNED for our next person behind the public policy interview. Tabor-Adams tells her full story about how it feels to live inside a busy silica frac sand mining district in west-central Wisconsin.
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