Real price of sand in Wisconsin: Political spending, impaired property values and tourist activity


St. Paul documentary filmmaker Jim Tittle was one of the first to take a close look at “The Price of Sand” when he learned in 2011 that energy production company Windsor Permian bought land near his parents’ home in Goodhue County’s Hay Creek Township, but isn’t the last person asking that question.

A pair of stories in the LaCrosse Tribune extricate some of the price of sand in Wisconsin. In Natural gas boom fuels frac sand mining, political spending, staff writer Chris Hubbach reports that political spending by industry interests increased 21 times since 2007:

Just as frac sand mines have popped up across western Wisconsin in the past half decade, so too has political spending from the sand and natural gas industries.

Since 2007, contributions from industry interests ballooned more than 21 times, from just $18,762 to more than $413,000 last year, according to analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. . . .

A total of 100 Republican candidates and committees received $710,790, while 44 Democratic candidates and committees received just $47,104. Nearly 70 percent of the contributions — totaling $520,266 — went to Gov. Scott Walker during the past two elections.

With $8,525 in contributions, former Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse was among the state’s top five recipients in the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis. The others included Sen. Alberta Darling, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, all Republicans.

In addition to oil and gas companies, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign based its findings on contributions from 17 companies — or their employees — with interests in sand mining. . . .

However, it excluded some large donors — such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce — that support frac sand mining but also lobby for other interests, said Mike McCabe, director of the nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group. . . .

Read the whole thing at the Tribune. Bluestem will be curious to see if the flow of contributions and lobbying spills across the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers.

The paper also ran a story from the Associated Press, Wisconsin budget committee approves frac sand mining plan, which details how nearly $447,000 is being pulled from the state’s state’s environmental management fund to inspect frac sand mines:

Money in the environmental management fund comes from a number of sources, including fees landfills pay the state, vehicle environmental impact fees and pesticide fees. The money goes toward recycling, cleaning up contaminated land and fighting pollution run-off from farm fields.

It’s curious that not only is money being pulled from the environmental funds, other industry is paying for the frac sand interests. That’s Walker’s Wisconsin.

They’re not the only ones. The Star Tribune’s Tony Kennedy reports in Wisconsin bluff towns trying to ban frac-sand mining along Lake Pepin:

A scenic 10-mile stretch of Wisconsin bluff land would be off-limits to frac-sand mining under a proposed ordinance that has strong local support but must overcome a pro-business climate that has made the Badger State the nation’s hottest silica sand-mining range.

If the proposed no-frac-sand zone succeeds in the eclectic Lake Pepin shoreline corridor anchored by the villages of Stockholm and Pepin, it will be rare, if not unprecedented. Wisconsin has approved about 100 frac-sand projects in the past four years — more than any other state — and no Minnesota or Wisconsin county has flatly banned frac-sand mining in an area that covers multiple local jurisdictions.

Unlike the environmental concerns expressed in many failed frac-sand fights, the argument in the Stockholm-Pepin area is economic.

A study commissioned from two University of Wisconsin-Madison professors by Lake Pepin Partners in Preservation found that frac-sand operations “have the potential to significantly impair property values and tourist activity in Stockholm and Pepin districts.”

Mavity said the study’s details should matter to the 12 elected supervisors who will decide the issue in the coming months. That’s because the area outlined in the proposed ban is a prime economic engine for Wisconsin’s smallest county, population 7,390. . . .

But the Stockholm-Pepin study quoted a real estate agent who said that the mere possibility of frac-sand mining already has damaged the local housing market, where values and unit growth were the highest of any sector in the county from 2000 to 2010. . . .

“For these particular communities, the costs of local frac-sand activity may exceed the benefits in both the short and long run,” the study said.

The study comes on the heels of a report issued last week by the Institute for Trade and Agriculture Policy, the Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Wisconsin Towns Association that challenged conventional wisdom about the economic benefits of the sand industry.

Bluestem suspects that industrial-scale sand mining is great for large corporations, lobbyists, legislators’ campaign committees and flacks, but not so much for many of the rest of people in the Driftless region.