Wisconsin’s Sandbox: Northern White Brings Arrival of Mines, Money and Tourism

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Oct. 28, 2015, 11:50 a.m.

This Con­tent is made pos­sible by our Spon­sor, however it is not writ­ten by and does not ne­ces­sar­ily re­flect the views of Na­tion­al Journ­al’s ed­it­or­i­al staff. Amer­ica’s En­ergy is a year-long ex­plor­a­tion of how each of the 50 states is con­trib­ut­ing to our na­tion’s all-of-the-above en­ergy suc­cess story.

It has be­come the most pop­u­lar tour­ist des­tin­a­tion in Bar­ron County, Wis., ac­cord­ing to one of­fi­cial. It’s not the Bar­ron Blue Hills left be­hind by gi­ant gla­ciers eons ago in the north­east­ern part of the county, about 50 miles north of Eau Claire. It’s not the Vik­ing Brew­ery in Dal­las. It’s not even the new Star­dust Drive-In Theat­er in Chet­ek.

No, the most pop­u­lar tour­ist des­tin­a­tions in Bar­ron County these days are the sand mines scattered among the area’s rolling fields and farm­lands, ac­cord­ing to Dave Arm­strong, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Bar­ron County Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion. In Au­gust, a group of at­tendees at the re­gion’s largest tract­or show lined up to take bus tours of Su­per­i­or Silica Sands’ (SSS) sand mine and wash­ing and dry­ing plants in Ar­land.

The vis­it­ors might not know it, but Wis­con­sin is the “Saudi Ar­a­bia of sand,” as the Wall Street Journ­al called it – which makes the state a key sup­port­ing act­or in Amer­ica’s en­ergy re­volu­tion. It’s the lead­ing pro­du­cer of sand used in hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing, which is in­teg­ral to the do­mest­ic surge in oil and nat­ur­al gas out­put that has made the U.S. the world’s lead­ing pro­du­cer.

Frac sand min­ing is a $10 bil­lion in­dustry na­tion­wide that sup­ports nearly half of the coun­try’s oil and gas pro­duc­tion. Wis­con­sin—which has a miner on its state flag—was the lead­ing pro­du­cer of frac sand in 2014, ac­count­ing for nearly half of the na­tion’s pro­duc­tion. The United States Geo­lo­gic­al Sur­vey puts Wis­con­sin’s pro­duc­tion at 24 mil­lion met­ric tons, com­pared with 8 mil­lion for Illinois, 8 mil­lion for Texas and 5 mil­lion for Min­nesota. 

Without sand from Wis­con­sin and sev­er­al oth­er states, there might not be a shale en­ergy re­volu­tion and an Amer­ic­an en­ergy renais­sance. Wa­ter and sand make up 99.5 per­cent of the flu­id that’s pumped at high pres­sure in­to shale and oth­er tight-rock form­a­tions to cre­ate tiny frac­tures. The sand serves as a “prop­pant,” lodging in the cracks to let the gas or oil flow out.

Hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing has been used for more than six dec­ades, but the emer­gence of mod­ern frack­ing has dra­mat­ic­ally in­creased sand de­mand. Be­fore, a typ­ic­al frack­ing op­er­a­tion might use 2,500 tons of sand. Today, up to 8,000 tons are used to frac­ture a well.

Wis­con­sin sand min­ing has ramped up with the en­ergy re­volu­tion. In 2010, the state had 10 mines and pro­cessing fa­cil­it­ies. Today, it has 132, with as many as 100 more in the plan­ning stages. Bar­ron County had zero op­er­at­ors four years ago. Now it has eight, in­clud­ing SSS, the largest frac sand com­pany in Wis­con­sin and, with 7 mil­lion tons of over­all ca­pa­city, the third largest in the en­tire in­dustry.

Illinois, Min­nesota, Texas and a few oth­er states also sup­ply frac sand for oil and nat­ur­al gas de­vel­op­ment, but none comes close to Wis­con­sin – where for more than a cen­tury sand has been mind for use in glass­mak­ing, iron and met­al pro­duc­tion, con­struc­tion, re­cre­ation, fil­tra­tion and wa­ter pro­duc­tion and more.

Wis­con­sin sand, also known as North­ern White, is par­tic­u­larly prized among frack­ing op­er­at­ors be­cause of its uni­form grain size and its high, pure silica con­tent. Its spher­ic­al shape can help it with­stand between 6,000 and 14,000 pounds of pres­sure per square inch, ex­plained Rich Budinger of Fair­mount San­trol and former pres­id­ent of the Wis­con­sin In­dus­tri­al Sand As­so­ci­ation.

To ex­tract sand, min­ing com­pan­ies scrape away the soil and, if ne­ces­sary, break up the sand­stone with ex­plos­ives and crush it. The raw sand is washed, dried, sor­ted by size and shipped – usu­ally by truck or rail – to frack­ing op­er­a­tions throughout the U.S.

Sand min­ing has been a wind­fall to rur­al areas in Wis­con­sin. For ex­ample, un­em­ploy­ment in Bar­ron County topped 11 per­cent at one point dur­ing the re­ces­sion. Today the rate is 5.1 per­cent. “When we first went in­to North­w­est Wis­con­sin, the eco­nomy was de­pressed,” said SSS CEO Rick Shear­er. “We’d get over 400 ap­plic­ants for 34 open­ings.”

Today, SSS em­ploys 450 loc­al res­id­ents, mostly from Bar­ron or neigh­bor­ing Chip­pewa County. “We’re com­mit­ted to hir­ing and spend­ing loc­ally,” Shear­er said. That in­cludes pump­ing more than $140 mil­lion a year in­to the loc­al eco­nomy.

SSS’s pos­it­ive im­pact is wel­come in Bar­ron County – though it wasn’t that way when SSS and oth­er op­er­at­ors began min­ing. A num­ber of res­id­ents were con­cerned about po­ten­tial health haz­ards from liv­ing near large piles of blow­ing sand. Those in­volved in min­ing, in­clud­ing Budinger and Shear­er, in­sist that the in­dustry is highly reg­u­lated and min­ing activ­ity is safe. “If you are fol­low­ing the reg­u­la­tions, there is no threat to the en­vir­on­ment, no threat to pub­lic health,” Budinger said.

Arm­strong said those early con­cerns dis­ap­peared. “The first year, that’s all it was—the fight between en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and those who looked at this as an eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment is­sue,” he re­called. “Well, four years in­to it, not one thing they [the en­vir­on­ment­al­ists] said would hap­pen has happened. They said, ‘They’ll pol­lute the ground­wa­ter, there’d be silicos­is every­where, the air qual­ity would go down, land val­ues would go down, tour­ism would be shot.’ Well, it’s been the ex­act op­pos­ite of everything that they said.”

County res­id­ents are see­ing be­ne­fits. Thanks to SSS’s cap­it­al ex­pendit­ures and the at­tend­ant job growth, prop­erty val­ues are grow­ing faster than many oth­er areas of Wis­con­sin, Arm­strong noted. Prop­erty val­ues were up by 4 per­cent from 2013, com­pared to the statewide av­er­age in­crease of 2.4 per­cent.

SSS and its em­ploy­ees are also act­ive in the com­munity, sup­port­ing area food banks, the Kiwanis, the Boys and Girls Club and giv­ing out schol­ar­ships at the high schools, tech schools and the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin Sys­tem. At the county fair each Ju­ly, the com­pany buys all the live­stock raised by area 4-H kids and uses the meat for em­ploy­ee cookouts at their five mines and three pro­cessing plants each Fri­day, Arm­strong said. “From a cor­por­ate cit­izen stand­point, I don’t know any who are bet­ter in the county.”

More than any­one, it’s the em­ploy­ees of SSS that have be­nefited. “I know of more than a couple of cases where people had had to move out of the state to find a good-pay­ing, steady job and they’ve come back to work at one of our plants,” Shear­er said. “They’ve told me, ‘You al­lowed me to come home, to come back to my fam­ily.’ It really makes you feel like you’re do­ing a lot of good here.”

Per­haps un­ex­pec­tedly, there’s also that sand min­ing tour­ism sec­tor.

“We had one bus that did five trips and each bus was so full, I couldn’t even go on it my­self. It was ab­so­lutely packed,” Arm­strong said. “I helped these farm­ers off and on the bus, and you’d see people get­ting on some­what stern and un­happy. But they would get off ju­bil­ant, say­ing that was the best tour they’d ever been on, that they learned more than they’d learned in years, that it was in­cred­ible.”

Shear­er wel­comes the in­flux of curi­ous tour­ists. “We’re very proud of what we’re do­ing. We are prov­ing that you can mine and pro­cess sand without put­ting any­one—work­ers, the com­munity, vis­it­ors—at risk. We are im­press­ing a lot of people when they see what we do and how we’re do­ing it.”

This Con­tent is made pos­sible by our Spon­sor, however it is not writ­ten by and does not ne­ces­sar­ily re­flect the views of Na­tion­al Journ­al’s ed­it­or­i­al staff. Amer­ica’s En­ergy is a year-long ex­plor­a­tion of how each of the 50 states is con­trib­ut­ing to our na­tion’s all-of-the-above en­ergy suc­cess story.


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