As a young listener, I always wanted to find out just what was behind the songs I loved. Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I’m less interested in offering those details up. But there is one song on The Magic Line I think might be enhanced by a bit of backstory.
The “Trempealeau” in “The Rolling Hills of Trempealeau” is a real place, a county on the western side of my homestate of Wisconsin, along the Mississippi River. Its population is small, but its Native American and early-U.S. history is of great importance to the region. I did a year of college nearby, and know well the beauty of the area, which is dotted with great, regal sandstone bluffs travelers have used as guiding points for centuries.
During the writing of The Magic Line, I read about a type of mining that’s been very quickly and very quietly proliferating all along the western side of the state. The heart of this boom has been Trempealeau County.
You’ve heard of “fracking,” right? Oil and natural gas companies hydraulically blasting fluid down into the ground to extract the valuable contents trapped inside? Well, it turns out that the best thing you can add to that fluid for optimal results is a hard, round type of sand called silica sand. It’s the Rolls-Royce of fracking sand, and there’s loads of it in the beautiful hills and bluffs of western Wisconsin.
When those oil/gas/mining/real estate companies figured all this out a few years back, they began showing up in rural towns like the ones in Trempealeau County. That area exists mostly on agriculture (farming) and tourism – bicycling and motorcycling the Great River Road area are big ones. People come from all over to ride and hike the gentle, rolling green hills that run along the Mississippi. Other than that, though, there’s not a lot of industry. And because there hasn’t traditionally been a lot of industry interested in western Wisconsin, there haven’t been a lot of laws set up to protect the people and the land. Mostly just handshakes between farmers, and fences between neighbors. You could say it was a place ripe for big oil and mining companies to swoop in flashing promises of jobs and wads of cash in exchange for land. Anyone with a heart can understand the allure and temptation these residents have been presented with.
What’s wrong with sand mining? Well, some folks say a lot of things. First off, crystalline silica sand is a registered human carcinogen. It becomes airborne when mined, and when it blows off sand piles and the trucks that move it, it finds its way into people’s lungs. This has been shown to cause silicosis, asthma, COPD, lung cancer and other not-fun ailments.
Then there’s the traffic. Many of these towns are hundreds or at most a couple thousand residents living a slow, quiet rural life. With the sand mines, hundreds of big loader-type trucks now crisscross the narrow county roads every day, carrying the sand to processing plants and rail spurs. Many operations run around the clock, so the sound and light of digging, processing and transporting literally never stops.
Of course there’s the environmental damage to the land you’d expect with open-pit mining. Groundwater contamination. Soil decimation. Ugly pits in what were once verdant mounds and bluffs. The mining companies say the land will eventually be farmable again, but some experts on the subject say that’s untrue.
Why would people stand for this? This all sounds like a terrible idea, you say? Well, here’s the thing. These mining people are smart. They come offering jobs to an area where jobs don’t usually come knocking. It might only be 15 or 20, and they may only be trucking jobs, but for these areas – that’s more jobs than are created in a decade or two. Jobs like that in places like Trempealeau County are godsends.
The Sand Men come with certified checks made out for triple, quadruple… many -uples more than what a family’s land is worth. It’s Lotto time for these families. Non-disclosure/gag orders are commonly attached to the transactions, so nobody else in the area will know that perhaps their own property may now have a giant sand mine/industrial site as a next-door neighbor. This has led to severe divisions in these formerly tight-knit communities, as you can imagine. There have also been accusations of these companies employing members of local government, so what little regulation exists might be less likely to be enforced. It’s really messy stuff with few winners, and it’s all very sad.
One bit of good news: Since I wrote “The Rolling Hills Of Trempealeau,” there has been a one-year moratorium placed on sand mining in Trempealeau County. The practice is still growing at a worrisome rate up and down the state, and the Sand Men are getting creative at using things like annexation to get around the few regulations that have been installed – but people in general seem to be getting wiser to what all this means to this beautiful land they and their descendants have been living on for generations.
I’m not anywhere near being an expert, nor I’m I particularly good at distilling such a complex situation into essay form. That’s why I became a songwriter: I’m lazy. I was surprised how few people knew about the issues involved in mining silica sand. I guess it’s not sexy enough a subject for the media. Good thing there’s no such thing as a subject too ugly for folk music.
You can read a much better overview than mine of silica sand mining in Wisconsin and Minnesota here:
Minnesotan director Jim Tittle made this really good documentary about the subject last year:
And here’s a clip from that doc that gives a little glimpse into what it’s like when a sand mine moves in next door: