Katie Schulzetenborg –
Professor Thomas Pearson, professor of anthropology here at University of Wisconsin-Stout, hasn’t always been an expert on frac sand mining. It all started as an interest in environmental problems and a topic that literally hit close to home. “When I moved to Menomonie to work at Stout in 2009, I initially didn’t know anything about frac sand mining. It was an issue that began to get a lot of media attention. There was a proposed mining operation near Menomonie and initially, I went to some of those meetings out of curiosity and as a concerned citizen. That evolved into a research project,” said Pearson.
Frac sand is strong quartz used in the hydraulic fracturing process, giving it the name “frac sand.” The actual process of hydraulic fracturing takes place in other parts of the country; however, Wisconsin is well-known for its abundance in this sought-after sand. “Frac sand mining really exploded as a topic several years ago because there is a lot of sand stone in western Wisconsin. As fracking began to boom in 2009, 2010, so did the demand for frac sand. There was an oil drilling boom in North Dakota as well as out east, which caused drillers to look for this material and mines began to expand rapidly in western Wisconsin.
After getting involved in the community and digging deeper into the issue, Professor Pearson eventually wrote his book “When the Hills are Gone: Frac Sand Mining and the Struggle for Community.” His book was published last November and since then, he has been features on Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) twice. His book “tells the story of grassroots activism,” as he calls it. Frac sand mining was a controversial issue in many communities and he wrote about why it was controversial and how communities responded to it and how they came together to oppose frac sand mining.
Pearson’s concerns about frac sand mining included the effects that it had on a community. “On hand you have the introduction of an industrial mining. We have a fossil based society and we all benefit from the use of these resources, but any industry has a cost,” said Pearson. His main concern was the negative side of frac sand mining. “Mining can be very loud, very dirty, create lots of truck traffic, and most importantly, you are disrupting and degrading the rural landscape and taking down hills. It’s this disruption to a community and to a landscape that affects people’s quality of life and their desire to live in that place,” said Pearson in relation to the negatives of mining. “There are also some environmental health concerns. Air quality, for one. Mining for sand generates microscopic particles of silica dust that when in inhaled and exposed to after long periods of time could be a risk to one’s health,” he said.
In recent times, fracking around the country declined along with the drop-in oil prices. “The demand for the sand used in the drilling disappeared and therefore the fall of oil prices globally impacted frac sand mining in Wisconsin in dramatic ways,” said Pearson.
Although it may not be the same controversial issue here in Wisconsin that it was a few years ago, Pearson continues to educate and inform the general audience on frac sand mining with his book, as well as his various talks.