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Ellen Cantarow: The New Eco-Devastation in Rural America

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Tom Engelhardt       (Page 3 of 4 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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Town-Busting Tactics

Frac-sand corporations count on a combination of naïvete', trust, and incomprehension in rural hamlets that previously dealt with companies no larger than Wisconsin's local sand and gravel industries. Before 2008, town boards had never handled anything beyond road maintenance and other basic municipal issues. Today, multinational corporations use their considerable resources to steamroll local councils and win sweetheart deals. That's how the residents of Tunnel City got taken to the cleaners.

On July 6, 2011, a Unimin representative ran the first public forum about frac-sand mining in the village. Other heavily attended and often heated community meetings followed, but given the cascades of cash, the town board chairman's failure to take a stand against the mining corporation, and Unimin's aggressiveness, tiny Tunnel City was a David without a slingshot.

Local citizens did manage to get the corporation to agree to give the town $250,000 for the first two million tons mined annually, $50,000 more than its original offer. In exchange, the township agreed that any ordinance it might pass in the future to restrict mining wouldn't apply to Unimin. Multiply the two million tons of frac-sand tonnage Unimin expects to mine annually starting in 2013 by the $300 a ton the industry makes and you'll find that the township only gets .0004% of what the company will gross.

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For the Gregars, it's been a nightmare. Unimin has refused five times to buy their land and no one else wants to live near a sand mine. What weighs most heavily on the couple is the possibility that their children will get silicosis from long-term exposure to dust from the mine sites. "We don't want our kids to be lab rats for frac-sand mining companies," says Jamie.

Drew Bradley, Unimin's senior vice president of operations, waves such fears aside. "I think [citizens] are blowing it out of proportion," he told a local publication. "There are plenty of silica mines sited close to communities. There have been no concerns exposed there."

That's cold comfort to the Gregars. Crystalline silica is a known carcinogen and the cause of silicosis, an irreversible, incurable disease. None of the very few rules applied to sand mining by the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) limit how much silica gets into the air outside of mines. That's the main concern of those living near the facilities.

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So in November 2011, Jamie Gregar and ten other citizens sent a 35-page petition to the DNR. The petitioners

asked the agency to declare respirable crystalline silica a hazardous substance and to monitor it, using a public health protection level set by California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The petition relies on studies, including one by the DNR itself, which acknowledge the risk of airborne silica from frac-sand mines for those who live nearby.

The DNR denied the petition, claiming among other things that -- contrary to its own study's findings -- current standards are adequate. One of the petition's signatories, Ron Koshoshek, wasn't surprised. For 16 years he was a member of, and for nine years chaired, Wisconsin's Public Intervenor Citizens Advisory Committee. Created in 1967, its role was to intercede on behalf of the environment, should tensions grow between the DNR's two roles: environmental protector and corporate licensor. "The DNR," he says, "is now a permitting agency for development and exploitation of resources."

In 2010, Cathy Stepp, a confirmed anti-environmentalist who had previously railed against the DNR, belittling it as "anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes," was appointed to head the agency by now-embattled Governor Scott Walker who explained: "I wanted someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality."

As for Jamie Gregar, her dreams have been dashed and she's determined to leave her home. "At this point," she says, "I don't think there's a price we wouldn't accept."

Frac-Sand vs. Food

Brian Norberg and his family in Prairie Farm, 137 miles northwest of Tunnel City, paid the ultimate price: he died while trying to mobilize the community against Procore, a subsidiary of the multinational oil and gas corporation Sanjel. The American flag that flies in front of the Norbergs' house flanks a placard with a large, golden NORBERG, over which pheasants fly against a blue sky. It's meant to represent the 1,500 acres the family has farmed for a century.

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"When you start talking about industrial mining, to us, you're violating the land," Brian's widow, Lisa, told me one March afternoon over lunch. She and other members of the family, as well as a friend, had gathered to describe Prairie Farm's battle with the frac-sanders. "The family has had a really hard time accepting the fact that what we consider a beautiful way to live could be destroyed by big industry."

Their fight against Procore started in April 2011: Sandy, a lifelong friend and neighbor, arrived with sand samples drillers had excavated from her land, and began enthusiastically describing the benefits of frac-sand mining. "Brian listened for a few minutes," Lisa recalls. "Then he told her [that]" she and her sand vials could get the heck -- that's a much nicer word than what he used -- off the farm. Sandy was hoping we would also be excited about jumping on the bandwagon. Brian informed her that our land would be used for the purpose God intended, farming."

Brian quickly enlisted family and neighbors in an organizing effort against the company. In June 2011, Procore filed a reclamation plan -- the first step in the permitting process -- with the county's land and water conservation department. Brian rushed to the county office to request a public hearing, but returned dejected and depressed. "He felt completely defeated that he could not protect the community from them moving in and destroying our lives," recalls Lisa.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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