Frac sand mining has been touted as a source of job creation, and some frac sand corporations have adopted the slogan "sand = jobs." Even the recent article “Sand boom creates jobs” (Dunn County News, Aug. 22) suggests that "when existing mines and those being built are fully operating, the industry will employ about 2,780 people — a sizable number, given the state's overall lackluster job picture."
In today's economy, it's easy to assume that any amount of jobs is a good thing. But according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 2,843,717 people were employed in Wisconsin in July 2012. Sand mining would represent less than 0.001 percent of total employment statewide. Seen in context, that's not very significant. And it raises the question: At what cost?
The environment has economic value, and not just as a warehouse from which to extract commodities. The natural landscape provides valuable environmental services, such as farmland, forests, healthy aquifers, picturesque hills and bluffs, and other amenities that make western Wisconsin an attractive place to live, work and do business. Destroying this landscape could sacrifice other forms of economic growth, such as tourism and residential development, or other sectors which might be more sustainable over the long term.
Frac sand mines also introduce new hazards related to air and water quality, traffic, noise pollution, and wear and tear on roads, bridges and other infrastructure, all of which diminish public health and safety.
While some people assert that sand mines will strengthen local tax bases, they usually don't figure in the new costs to provide extra public services to accommodate this industry, costs which may cancel out any new tax revenues. We also need to ask whether or not the assumed increase in property tax base from a given frac sand mine is offset by the drop in surrounding property values.
In addition to a meager amount of jobs, some argue that frac sand generates economic activity which "multiplies" throughout local economies when new infrastructure is built or when workers receive salaries.
As money moves through local economies, however, it’s important to ask how the benefits and costs are distributed. We often hear, for instance, that frac sand companies invest tens of millions of dollars to build processing plants or rail spurs. But unless a rural Wisconsin town produces the basic inputs of an industrial frac sand operation, those millions are spent elsewhere.
Frac sand money escapes from local economies in other ways. If a worker lives and shops outside the community where the sand mine, processing plant, or rail spur is located, then when they go home after a day's work, their pay check goes with them. That money "leaks" from the local community that hosts the mine, but the host community is stuck with the various costs left behind — loss of natural landscape, noise pollution, truck traffic, silica dust, declining property values, concerns about water quality, and so on.
Perhaps most disturbing, research conducted by sociologists and economists suggests that mining is at best an unstable basis for long-term economic development, a ride on what some call "the resource roller coaster." The more rural, remote and dependent a community is on mining, the more vulnerable it becomes economically. Yes, during "boom" periods such as the current "sand-rush," mines create jobs with decent wages. But mining is notoriously susceptible to boom-and-bust cycles that characterize national and global economies and the potential "flickering" of commodity prices. If demand for hydrofracking or natural gas drops, sand mining will slow down, and the benefits enjoyed by a few will be short-lived.
Other costs cannot be put into monetary terms, such as conflict and distrust within rural communities divided over frac sand. Well-meaning town officials are often blinded by the "flashbulb" effect of a proposed frac sand operation: the dazzle of seemingly large sums of money, the allure of job creation, and the empty assurances that everything is well-regulated. In some cases, they appear to accommodate frac sand interests with little regard for public well-being, which erodes confidence in local government.
We face significant trade-offs for that 0.001 percent. The simplistic rhetoric of "sand equals jobs" is misleading and insulting, a public relations ploy carried out by self-interested corporations seeking to profit from the hills and bluffs of western Wisconsin. We need to move beyond catchphrases and have a serious discussion about whether or not this industry is right for our communities.
Thomas Pearson is a cultural anthropologist and faculty member in the social science department at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.