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Opening Letters

Digging Deeper

an interest in local sand mining uncovers inspiring network of concerned citizens

illustrated by Catlin Felix Kramka |

I drive from Eau Claire to Menomonie every day for work, and my trek into town takes me right through the Menomonie site of Fairmont Minerals, the sand company off of Highway 29. Until about two months ago, I didn’t give the lumbering trucks, bright lights, or giant piles of sand a second thought.

These are serious questions that require serious answers, but sifting through all of the available research, at least for a newcomer like me, was enough to make my head spin. The more I researched, the more concerned (and confused) I became.

After happening across an article on “fracking” in a newspaper one afternoon, however, curiosity got the better of me and I Googled the phrase. Now, I’ve always enjoyed researching and consider myself to be fairly informed, but I had no idea how huge the sand mining issue had become, or how to wade through the vast amount of information and opinions. But once I started learning, I couldn’t stop – and what followed was a leap into the world of public meetings and citizen action groups I never imagined myself following. Most surprising, however, was the discovery of a network of extremely passionate citizens from all sides of the issue who have dedicated themselves to educating their fellow Chippewa Valley residents and helping them make informed decisions on a very complex issue.

Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas from shale formations by injecting a combination of sand, water, and chemicals so the natural gas can be released. It’s most successful when the right kind of sand is used, and, as it happens, western Wisconsin is chock full of the perfectly spherical, hard, and uniform sand particles needed in this process. This sand has caught the interest of many in- and out-of-state companies, who want to develop new sand mines or expand upon existing ones, and deciding to let them means answering some complicated questions.

Will the establishment of new frac sand mines and processing plants provide jobs and boost the local economy, or will companies bring in their own workers? Will the trucks transporting the sand destroy our roads, and, if so, who’s responsible for their repairs? Will residents who live or work nearby the sand mines and processing plants be exposed to crystalline silica, which can cause the lung disease silicosis? Will chemicals from the mining process somehow contaminate our ground water? The list goes on.

These are serious questions that require serious answers, but sifting through all of the available research, at least for a newcomer like me, was enough to make my head spin. The more I researched, the more concerned (and confused) I became.

Enter a random assortment of Chippewa Valley residents who’ve taken it upon themselves to follow the latest city and county meetings, question experts, and, most importantly, share their hard-earned knowledge with strangers. At my first public meeting, for instance, I was surrounded by various officials, university professors, students, housewives, etc. A quick scan of the room told me that the handout materials had already run out, but the stranger standing next to me immediately offered to scan and email me her copy. Even with her busy schedule, she didn’t think twice before offering to help, just as those I met after the meeting didn’t hesitate to extend invitations to join email lists (which were basically continued discussions about newly uncovered information) or more local groups.

None of these people knew me; I was invited because of on my interest in the topic and their dedication to sharing information. After only a week or two, I found myself admiring the way these residents constantly challenged each other to dig deeper and do more, all while sharing information and answering each other’s questions and concerns. It’s inspired me to stay involved and do even more.

Two months later, my drive past Fairmont Minerals is a daily reminder of how much there is to learn about sand mines and their effect on the region. I, for one, hope to see jobs and economic growth created from all of this sand interest, but I fear that quick, uninformed decisions may result in environmental and health problems. Staying informed is therefore vital, and I know that know there is a network of concerned citizens out there who are willing to drop anything to help even perfect strangers resolve questions or concerns.

These residents are no different than those who’ve banded together to bring change or accountability or attention to any number of important issues facing the Chippewa Valley in the past, but it took sand mines to make me aware of them – and very appreciative. These residents care deeply about their community, and will drop everything to provide strangers with help on such an important topic, no matter what “side” they are on. It’s downright inspiring.