Once booming, sand mines shuttered

Sand mining in Trempealeau County

Sand mining in Trempealeau County has proved to be a boom and bust business. The fortunes of local frac sand firms have fluctuated with oil prices and rivalry from generating scores of workers and taking in millions of profits to idling plants. The sector has been at one of its lowest points since the pandemic crushed the worldwide market for crude.

Hi-Crush, one of the region’s largest broken sand mining firms, closed its Whitehall mine earlier this year, permanently laid off 35 employees, and this year went bankrupt. Hi-Crush and Badger Mining Company lay off a collective 70 workers in nearby Taylor, Wis. Another mine in Arcadia, operated by Canadian Silica Industries (CSI), was also idled, and a report was conducted by the city to ensure that the company’s $722,000 set aside for mine recovery is adequate.

Hi-Crush generated hundreds of jobs at its Whitehall mine and neighboring Blair, Wis., processing facility, improved the local tax base, and contributed to local charities, however over the years, it had sporadic closures and employment cuts, briefly laid off over 35 employees in 2018 and 2019. This spring, at the Whitehall and Blair plants, Hi-Crush permanently laid off 67 workers, blaming energy costs, and sued for bankruptcy this summer. Last month, the downsized corporation concluded its debt plan, but it is uncertain if the Whitehall and Blair facilities would ever reopen. The Hi-Crush mine, amid its ups and downs, was nice for Whitehall overall, Mayor Jeff Hauser said.

“Some jobs are always good. They took some company to some of our local companies downtown, and I know they made a large contribution for some supplies and contributions elsewhere in the city to the fire department… They charged our community somewhere near $270,000 in taxes, and that’s a piece of change that’s pretty relevant to our size budget, he said.

Mayor Jeff Hauser

Hauser revealed that Hi-Crush had nearly 10 million in a fund set aside to clean up its massive mine. The confidence is intended to guarantee that there is funding enough to clean up the mines and taxpayers are not left with the bag, even though mining firms go bankrupt. Asked what will cause the mine’s reclamation to begin, Hauser answered, “You know, for all of us, these are all uncharted waters, pretty much, but I’d assume there would be some kind of final liquidation or a full-fledged bankruptcy that says, ‘We’re not going to operate forever anymore.'”

City administrator Chad Hawkins said that in Arcadia, the smaller CSI mine has $722,000 put aside for reclamation. The mine has been abandoned for some time now and owes over $150,000 in taxes, according to Trempealeau County reports. I recognize their struggles right now on a personal perspective,” Hawkins said.” Frac sand is a reservoir of sorts. I feel for them However, Hawkins would love to see the property restored and repurposed for any much-needed homes or other projects if the mine is not being used. In order to study the reclamation proposal, the city recently retained an architecture company. That could contribute to a new mine clean-up cost estimate and a need to set aside more funds, Hawkins reported.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources offers local municipalities with some guidelines about the value of financial protection for rehabilitation and how much funding is required for mines of various sizes and forms, although it is up to local governments to enact and execute them. The state isn’t keeping track.

A request for comment was not replied by Hi-Crush. The CSI members weren’t eligible directly.

The drilling industry has earned some positive indicators. Oil prices are still poor, but have rebounded slightly since cratering early in the pandemic, and those in the sector are optimistic that once COVID-19 vaccinations become readily accessible, demand can completely recover.

Minnesota Sands in Fillmore Co. eyed the one-off mine.

This fall, Minnesota Sands investigated opening a single frac sand mine in Fillmore City, but did not officially apply for a permit. Before it could do that, there will be major regulatory barriers for the business to tackle.

Minnesota Sands is the company which in 2012 proposed a constellation of 11 frac sand mines throughout the counties of Winona, Fillmore, and Houston. Since the 11 mines were seen as one big undertaking, a comprehensive environmental impact analysis was mandated by the state (EIS). Before suing Winona County in 2017 over its 2016 frac sand mining ban, the firm volunteered to do an EIS, but still neither finished the analysis or attempted the mining ventures. The legal fight went all the way up to the Supreme Court of Minnesota, where the court decided in favour of Winona City.

Minnesota Sands questioned the officials of Fillmore County this fall what it might take to allow a single mine in Fillmore County. For Fillmore County Zoning Administrator Cristal Adkins, it raised a question: was the EIS rule still in place? If only one mine was being explored by Minnesota Sands, not 11, should it be excused from the research?

The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB), the organization in control of the EIS provision, considered the issue this fall. Any board members were doubtful about whether just one mine was indeed wanted by the group. Minnesota Sands had previously sought to be excused from the EIS to explore a single mine, but representatives of the EQB refused the appeal, citing the litigation against Winona County by Minnesota Sands as proof that it was deliberately seeking to open more than only one mine.

Minnesota Sands is now in a role close to this. This fall, the U.S. questioned Minnesota Sands. To send the appeal against Winona County to the Supreme Court. The high court does not consider the appeal, but it leaves Minnesota Sands at present informing regulators that it just needs to operate one mine while still seeking legal threats to open others theoretically. The EQB did not make a statement about whether to waive the EIS because Fillmore County has not yet submitted a formal permit application. A Minnesota Sands spokesperson did not respond to a request for clarification.

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