New Auburn sand mine

This undated photo shows Superior Silica Sands' operation near New Auburn.

BOB FIRTH / Fedgazette

A state agency is launching a five-year study on the effect frac sand mines in western Chippewa County have on groundwater.

"This is the first study that I'm aware of that is looking at (frac sand mine) impacts to water on a quasi-regional scale. It tries to cover a lot of bases," said Mike Parsen, hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey on Wednesday.

The contract to start the study was signed last week, Parsen said.

"Chippewa County has been very proactive early on saying, 'We want to look into this,'" Parsen said.

Preliminary field work will begin this fall, with the first report to the public in the first quarter of 2013, and annual reports after that. Parsen said it's important to build public outreach and education into the project.

He said the study will look at what is the result of pumping water at sand mine sites, and also what happens to the groundwater where there are changes to an area's topography and landscaping.

"We just want a better understanding about how mining and agriculture and other related activities affect or don't affect groundwater out in that area," said Seth Ebel, project engineer for the Chippewa County Department of Land Conservation and Forest Management.

With nine either existing or proposed frac sand mines, western Chippewa County is a fertile ground for a study, which is estimated to cost $500,000. Of that, the county will pay $344,723 and the U.S. Geological Survey $88,600.

The county's portion of paying for the study is staggered over the five years.

"The U.S. Geological Society is actively pursing additional funding on a federal level," Parsen said.

Patricia Popple, a longtime critic of frac sand mining, hailed the study and the work of the Land Conservation Department in securing it.

"It's vitally important to Chippewa County," she said.

"This is the kind of science we need to have to determine the impact of frac sand mining on our water supply," she said, adding water is the area's jewel.

"The good science approaches on this are crucial," she said.

Paul Juckem, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the study will track how water processes at sand mining operations affect streams and water levels.

The study will do that by taking information compiled at the mining operations and entering that into a computer model.

Mining companies participating in the study include: Superior Silica Sand, Preferred Sands of Minnesota, Chippewa Sand Company, EOG Resources and Taylor Creek Transit.

Also participating are the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Trout Unlimited and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Parsen said members of the public, mining companies, the Farmers Union, Trout Unlimited and DNR will make up a "stakeholders group," that will monitor the study.

Editor's note: The wrong term was used in the initial article to describe the group that will monitor the study. It is the stakeholders group.

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