Frac sand mining benefits below the radar

There are lots of worries about the environmental effects of the oil and gas drilling practice known as “fracking” and the sand mining in Minnesota and Wisconsin that’s key to the drilling.

Right now, though, the economic benefits of that drilling are planting roots throughout the upper Midwest. It’s obvious in North Dakota, the epicenter of the oil and gas boom. But it’s also showing up in Minnesota in places you might not expect.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis notes the sand mining in southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin is triggering a resurgence in local freight rail. The Fed writes:

In Wisconsin, many sand mining companies have built facilities adjacent to rail lines–a cost-effective way to ship raw or processed sand, often in “unit trains” of over 100 cars. In response to increased demand, railroads have ramped up their operations and rehabilitated little-used or dormant lines, at a cost of roughly $1 million to $2 million per mile.

Lakeville, Minn.-based Progressive Rail operates a 62-mile line running north from Chippewa Falls to Rice Lake and Almena, in Barron County (see accompanying map). Freight volume has increased fivefold to about 1,800 cars a month since EOG Resources completed a new sand processing plant in Chippewa Falls last December, said company President Dave Fellon. Over 90 percent of that volume consists of frac sand from the EOG plant and other mining facilities along the route.

Rising revenue has allowed Progressive to invest in human capital (payroll has increased from 65 to 100 workers over the past year) and critical line improvements. Fellon said the firm will spend $30 million to $50 million over the next five years on new railroad ties, bridges, loading facilities and other infrastructure.

Canadian National and Union Pacific have also refurbished long-neglected rail lines linking Wisconsin frac sand operations to distant markets. This summer, CN began clearing brush and laying new ties on a 45-mile section of rail between Cameron and Ladysmith to connect existing and proposed sand mines with a main CN line running north into Canada and south to Texas. The railroad backed out of a pending sale to the state that would have let Progressive operate the line, opting to retain ownership of a potentially profitable sand route.

We’ve seen communities in southeast Minnesota put the brakes on new mining as they try to balance the huge potential economic payoff with quality of life concerns.

But as often happens, the economic payoff gets a huge head start in the debate. It’s hard to have a discussion about long term stability when there are needed jobs being created and big money to be made in the short-term.

— Paul Tosto

  • BJ

    wow that is a lot of impact. Oil, sand, railroads, lumber and steel (for railroad lines).

  • Wispat

    A one year job spike is hardly worth the social and economic devastation left in thier wake. Tourism takes a heavy hit. Ag land is further diminished. Mined land is only minimally productive after 100 years with good reclamation practices. Airborne silica is a carcinogen. Peaceful rural communities are inundated with non stop truck traffic – just so a few people can get rich. Once the constuction phase is over, the job impact is often minimal while the damage is enormous. The “Huge Economic Payoff” that this author refers to is often concentrated in the hands of a very few – at our expense. Former Governor Tim Pawlenty recently invested in sand mining. Obviously he is one of the few, but then most of us already knew that.

  • RL

    A one year spike during such poor economic times is more than most industries can boast. I find it hard to believe this industry and the rail industry are “rolling the dice” when hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested for a one year job spike. How many tourists see the areas that are being mined? Seems to me they come for the “destination spots”. You may want to look at the DNR’s reclamation plans for these facilities…hardly a 100 year dormancy. Airborne silica…you mean dust from gravel roads, farmers working their land and wind blowing fields. None of those are regulated to assure “dust” (airborne silica) is minimized. I’m sure you have been fighting for years to have farmers regulated. Trucks that are now moving product only available from our area of the world, creating needed jobs, revenue for the towns, county and state. Are you implying we ban trucks from this industry and no others? The construction phase is just that…construction. The processing and sale for years afterward (remember the investment?) is where the real economic payoff is for the whole community. You want in on it? It’s still a free country…go after it.

  • mason240

    Why is the word “frac” in the title? They are not fracking in WI. They are mining for sand. If they were mining the sand for making roads, the title would not have been “Road Construction Sand Mining.”

  • Malinda

    Silica dust….yes, it will be flying in the air, do some research…it is the process they use to separate the sand, it creates silica dust, dangerous and deadly when inhaled. Topsoil from farmers, gravel pits, etc. are completely different, they do not produce silica dust. This is the problem, no one is doing research to see what really happens, go to YouTube and see what people are going through who have mines in their neighborhood. These mines run 24/7 365 days a year, NON-STOP, truck traffic, tearing up our roads, yes the mines say they will pay for it but how will these little rural towns inforce that? WHY do they feel the need to be so close to schools? the one being proposed in Camerson is 1,500 ft. from the school!! Chippewa sand mine LEAKED INTO THE ST. CROIX RIVER, it took a hiker to see that, it had been leaking for 4-5 days because they set up and ILLEGAL RETENTION POND that leaked…people come to WI to fish, hunt, relax…Chetek has a 300 acre plant that is going to be proposed…Chetek is a tourist town that will be HUGELY impacted!! I know this because I am in Real Estate and people are calling saying the Sand Mines are approaching them to sell their land. ALSO, reclaimed land….NOTHING GROWS ON IT!! Look it up, or ask these Sand Mine companies to show you ONE picture of reclaimed land with grass, trees, etc. It is not happening! Hope you can eat your money after we have used up all the land and can no longer grow food, support wildlife, etc.

  • M. Smith

    There are other environmental factors to consider than just the actual sand mining itself. Progressive Rail/Wisconsin Northern were slapped with fines for wetlands violations in relation to a construction project for the frac mining business in Eagle Point/Chippewa Falls. Progressive Rail was also fined for environmental violations in Lakeville MN in 2005 & 2008 and have a long disputed eyesore residential railcar storage business in Lakeville. This is clearly not a company that cares about the environment. Please see

  • JBT

    I’m with RL.

    One year job spike? There have already been hundreds of jobs created over the last 3 years and hundreds more will be created over the next decade.

    Tourism takes a heavy hit? Unsubstaniated claim. There will be few tourists impacted by sand mining activity. However, even the Mesabi Iron Range attracts tourists.

    Agricultural land diminished? Reclamation plans can require restoration of productive soils for agriculture. In some cases more agricultural land will result. Soil scientists understand the pedon structure necessary for agricultural productivity.

    Airborne silica? Sorry, even around a frac sand processing plant there were not significant levels of airborne silica to be found. The round frac sand particles are many times larger than the respirable, angular silica particles that cause silicosis. The round grains if “glued” together in sandstone, are by carbonate, not crystalline silica. The mining process is designed to not crush the frac sand grains. There certainly is dust associated with frac sand mining, its just not a problem in open areas.

    Mines operating 24/7 365 days a year? In the Town of Howard, Chippewa County, Wisconsin the developers agreement limits noise levels and blasting, limits use of roads to six months a year, requires stormwater management and groundwater monitoring, compliance with the WiDNR air permit, and reclamation to productive agricultural standards.

    The rich get richer? Yeah, and the whole region will get richer along with them.

    Roads destroyed? Get real, the mining companies need good roads for sand transport and eagerly agree to upgrades and maintenance.

    Processing plant next to schools? Again, air monitoring has shown there is no significant are quality concerns near frac sand processing. Can that be said for the numerous feed mills that have been near schools in Wisconsin for almost 100 years?

    Rail improvements will be investment that benefits these communities for years to come as other businesses seek properties with rail service.

    It was not a Chippewa sand mine that leaked sand slurry into the St. Croix River. It was in Burnett County perpetrated by the Tiller Corporation, a Minnesota company that likely won’t be around long. There was a spill in Chippewa County that affected a small stream. Two incidents in three years really don’t seem to be a cause for alarm, especially because of the lessons learned make these event less likely in the future.

    I agree there are impacts on communities, persons and property. However, unsubstantiated, emotional claims cannot prove that the costs outweigh the benefits.