Within the last few years, mining the abundant industrial-grade silica sand that can be found throughout western Wisconsin has become big business.
Chippewa County alone boasts eight mines — along with three additional proposed sites — that harvest the strong and perfectly shaped sand needed to extract oil and gas from shale using a drilling process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
But unlike its neighbors in Chippewa, Eau Claire and other counties extending south to La Crosse and into Winona, Minn., Dunn County only boasts one sand mine: Wisconsin Industrial Sand Company (WISC).
Other than the sand and gravel quarries that have dotted the landscape for decades, the 279-acre WISC was actually the first large-scale mine to come to the Chippewa Valley when it opened just east of Menomonie in 2008.
The company is a subsidiary of Chesterland, Ohio-based Fairmount Minerals, and it operates a wet and dry processing plant that supplies sand — up to 60 percent of the mine’s output — to the Cardinal FG glass plant located nearby. About 3 to 4 percent goes to the Owens-Corning plant in Minneapolis for the production of roofing shingles, while the remainder is shipped to fracking operations.
First in state
Although the economic impact is generally considered to be favorable, the environmental impact of sand mining is viewed with suspicion by many.
Fears about the mining of silica sand range from the effects of blowing sand on air quality and human health, to what washing sand can potentially do to an area’s groundwater. Trucking sand — usually to railway transfer stations — also has residents worried about extra traffic as well as wear and tear on roadways.
WISC, however, has been recognized for living up to its motto of “Do good. Do well.”
In January, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) designated the company as a Green Tier business — the first mining operation in the state to be named as such.
According to the DNR, the program recognizes companies “that voluntarily exceed legal requirements related to health, safety, and the environment, resulting in continuous improvement in th(e) state’s environment, economy, and quality of life.”
Rich Budinger, WISC regional operations manager, is pleased that the company was singled out for the commendation.
“We work diligently to exceed environmental regulations,” he said. “Our top priorities are ensuring a safer workplace for our employees and continuing our commitment to superior environmental performance.”
One example of WISC’s commitment is that over the past five years, all three of the company’s mines have reduced water consumption by more than 50 percent.
Lauren Evans, WISC’s sustainable development coordinator, explained that washing the sand to remove the clay and other waste material uses a considerable amount of water.
“What we’ve been able to do at all our facilities is to incorporate a recycling process so that the amount of fresh water that we have to draw from our high-capacity wells is a very small percentage — as little as two or three percent,” she said.
WISC also continues to reduce its consumption of dryer fuel, diesel fuel and kilowatt hours. To ensure the most efficient energy use, the company carefully tracks and seek ways to cut or offset its greenhouse gas emissions so, Evans said, “we’re able to see what improvements are making a difference and what isn’t working.”
Zero is a good number
WISC’s parent company, Fairmount Minerals, set a goal for all its facilities nationwide to be zero waste to landfill by 2015. However, Evans reported that the Menomonie plant already reached that goal at the end of 2012 through a series of different steps.
In addition to enhancing the mine’s regular recycling efforts, “We found ways to recycle things that we hadn’t thought of before,” Evans said.
For example, the industry uses rubber conveyor belts to transport sand. “We oftentimes have to replace large rolls or large strips of that belting,” Evans explained. “They were kind of stockpiling up at our facilities. They’re not the kind of things you can dump in the Dumpster or the recyclables at the landfill.”
Among the out-of-the-box options they discovered were ski jumping clubs and ice rinks. The ski clubs uses the belting to practice on with roller blades during the off season, and hockey rinks use it as flooring to provide traction for people walking on their ice skates.
Best of all was the discovery of Atlas Belting in the Milwaukee area, which pays for and picks up the flooring.
WISC has also taken advantage of Veolia’s commercial composting service. In addition to food scraps, the waste management company accepts soiled paper like plates, napkins and tissues — and even used chewing gum.
The one to two yards of waste that doesn’t have a recycling stream — Styrofoam, packaging materials, plastic bags and film — is transported each month to a waste-to-energy facility in Barron County, where it is burned to create energy that is returned to the electrical grid.
In fact, WISC also contributes to the grid to offset all of the power that’s consumed at the Menomonie mine’s main building that houses its offices, labs, maintenance shop, storage and employee break room areas — everything except the wash plant and screening tower.
In October 2011, the company installed 165 solar panel modules that produce 240 watts each.
In May, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce recognized WISC’s Menomonie plant as its small-to-medium Business Friend of the Environment for its environmental stewardship.
In fact, all of WISC’s facilities are certified in Wildlife at Work and Corporate Lands for Learning.
Through Wildlife at Work, Evans explained, “We track wildlife and species of native plants on our existing sites to ensure that we’re doing the minimal amount we can to disturb them. That also involves creating habitat for them if that’s needed.”
Corporate Lands for Learning allows WISC to use its sites as learning tools for outside community groups, including area schools.
“We talk about the geology in area, what natural resources are used for, how sand is mined,” Evans said. “We usually talk a lot about our bats as well. At our two underground facilities (in Maiden Rock and Hagar City), they’re the second and third largest bat populations in the state of Wisconsin.
“We work closely with the DNR to monitor the populations and make sure that they’re healthy.”
For this, the council recently recognized WISC’s Hager City-Bay City mine with the Bat Conservation Action Award.
As one of the state’s largest sand producers, WISC has proven itself as both an industry leader and dedicated steward of the environment that fully embraces its sustainable development mission of “People. Planet. Prosperity.”