Keith Fossen never expected to join a grassroots environmental group, let alone help organize one from the ground up.
“I was so far over there on the conservative side … whenever I heard of anyone trying to do something for the environment, I was suspicious,” Fossen said during an interview with Truthout. “I thought anything environmental was trying to control business.”
Fossen and his wife Amy Nelson live in rural Hay Creek Township located about 10 miles from the Mississippi River on the outskirts of Red Wing, Minnesota. Fossen is an entrepreneur and CEO of a business education services firm. For years, he agreed with other conservatives that environmental causes were bad for business. His tune began to change, however, as the frack-sand rush started knocking on his back door.
“I’m a conservative businessman, and it’s so interesting the people I’m hanging out with … I’m hanging out with environmentalists,” Fossen said in a Red Wing coffee shop.
Sandstone formations in eastern Minnesota and across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin contain high quantities of silica particles of a desirable size and shape for hydraulic fracturing. Fracking, an unconventional oil and gas drilling technique, uses high volumes of water laced with silica and chemicals to break up underground rock and release fossil fuels. Fracking is not big in Minnesota, but the fracking boom in states such as North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania has exponentially increased the demand for frack sand from the area.
In February 2011, Fossen’s neighbor noticed a notice in the local paper announcing the sale of 155 acres of property next to their residential neighborhood to Windsor Permian, a large energy firm that has changed hands in recent years and is now associated with Diamondback Energy, an oil and gas drilling company in Texas. The firm spent $2.6 million to buy the land, a price that far exceeded the land’s market value, according to local reports. It soon became clear that the company intended to mine the property for frack sand. Nelson and Fossen knew that they could soon be watching the bluff near their house disappear and be shipped off in piles to drilling rigs in Texas.
The frack-sand boom had sparked a heated controversy across the river in Wisconsin, so residents of the neighborhood were familiar with the potential impacts – carcinogenic silica dust blowing in the wind, a heavy increase in truck traffic, noise from blasting – that would occur if Windsor Permian turned a large chunk of woodland into an open-pit sand mine.
“They got ravaged over in Wisconsin, and we saw it here,” Fossen said. But his neighborhood is not like rural Wisconsin, where dozens of frack sand mines set up shop in farming communities. Fossen said his neighbors are highly educated professionals “who were going to fight.”
Two Sides of a River
The sandstone bluffs that rise up along both sides of the Mississippi River corridor in Wisconsin and Minnesota are rich in the silica desired by the fracking industry. Wisconsin is home to at least 70 operating mines and a total of 131 mines and processing facilities have been permitted in the state, but Minnesota is home to only eight mines, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Just across the Mississippi River from Red Wing, for example, a large sand-processing facility near an expanding underground mine in the tiny town of Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, can suck up to 1.3 million gallons of water a day out of a local aquifer to clean frack sand before it’s loaded onto waiting trains. Red Wing, which is home to a nuclear power plant and has a population of 16,000, uses 1.6 million gallons a day.
So why has the industry expanded so quickly in Wisconsin, but not in Minnesota?
Fossen and his allies point to a number of factors that have kept a major sand rush at bay in Minnesota, including greater access to railways in Wisconsin and some extra regulatory hurdles in Minnesota. But there are some clear socioeconomic differences as well.
“A lot of mining in Wisconsin targeted communities with little resources,” said Carol Overland, an attorney and environmental activist in Red Wing.
Dozens of frack-sand mines have broken ground in tiny farming communities across western Wisconsin in recent years, and like any natural resource-extraction effort, there are winners and losers. Landowners who can lease land to mining companies or start their own mines stand to make a considerable profit off the frack-sand rush, leaving their neighbors to live and farm in the shadows of mining operations that receive little regulatory oversight. As Truthout discovered in Cooks Valley, Wisconsin, where a bitter town hall battle over local mining regulations went all the way to the state’s Supreme Court, frack-sand mining has polarized once tight-knit communities.
The Minnesota side of the Mississippi boasts larger cities with modest tourist economies, and, according to Fossen and other activists, the prospect of losing the area’s scenic bluffs to mining united environmental activists with members of the business community. With a handful of activist groups opposing mining in Red Wing, Winona and other cities along Minnesota’s river corridor, the frack-sand industry found Minnesota to have an increasingly unfriendly political atmosphere.
Fossen, Nelson and their neighbors soon began working to stop Windsor Permian from mining in Hay Creek. As they distributed fliers and information and networked with groups in other communities, their effort morphed into a movement. Soon residents from the Red Wing area would be packing city hall meetings and informational sessions on frack-sand mining.
“What we’ve all learned is we want to protect our air, we want to protect our water … and we want to protect our socioeconomic base,” said Nelson, referring to the local tourism industry.
Fossen, Nelson and other allies founded Save the Bluffs, an activist group dedicated to preventing Minnesota from ending up like Wisconsin. Fossen said the group has about a dozen dedicated members and 300 to 400 supporters and followers. As he became more involved in activism, Fossen’s view on environmentalism began to change.
“Hey you tree huggers I always laughed at, hey, you’re right,” Fossen said with a chuckle.
One of the tree huggers was sitting right across from Fossen at the Red Wing coffee shop. His name is Erik Fridell, and he helped write the local ordinance passed by the Red Wing City Council that all but banned frack-sand activity within the city limits. Fridell, who wears a hiking jacket and calls himself a “lefty,” said Save the Bluffs brought together concerned citizens with a variety of backgrounds and unique skills. Their strategy: Use grassroots mobilization to push restrictive ordinances and mining moratoriums through local and county governments.
The focus on local initiatives and ballot boxes has become a cornerstone of the anti-fracking movement; in recent years, grassroots activists across the country have worked to pass local bans and restrictions on drilling in areas targeted by fracking.
Fossen won a seat as supervisor on the Hay Creek Township Board and helped write a local ordinance on nonmetallic mining. Save the Bluffs won a crucial victory in 2011 by winning a moratorium on fracking in Goodhue County, home to both Red Wing and Hay Creek. The group was able to place allies on a committee to study mining and strengthen the county’s nonmetallic mining ordinance, and the county moratorium has been extended into this summer to give the committee time to finish its work. Another Save the Bluffs member landed a spot on the board in nearby Florence Township and helped squash plans to build a frack-sand transport facility there.
Meanwhile, the Windsor Permian deal at Hay Creek was tied up in litigation, giving the activists more breathing room to push restrictive mining ordinances at the local and county level.
In Red Wing, the frack-sand controversy had blown some wind into the sails of local progressives and activists, according to Carol Overland. “The initiative pushed a lot of activist people out of the woodwork in communities that otherwise had been snoozing,” Overland said.
Save the Bluffs members and other activists helped push a one-year moratorium on drilling through the Red Wing City Council, leaving local leaders time to study the potential impacts of mining and to update local regulations. The moratorium finally ended last October, and since then Red Wing has adopted a purposively restrictive ordinance, which Fridell can take partial credit for as a member of the city’s sustainability commission.
“(In Red Wing) we restricted mining to industrial zones where there is no sand … it’s almost as banned as it can be,” Fridell said.
As the movement gained steam, legislators took notice. State lawmakers are currently considering proposals to tighten regulation of the frack-sand industry, with the strongest bill coming from Red Wing’s own Sen. Matt Schmit, a Democrat. Schmit’s bill would establish a statewide moratorium on new or expanded frack-sand mining until March 1, 2014, while regulators complete a statewide environmental impact study and recommend new rules for the industry.
The proposal sparked anti-mining rallies at the state capital, and the industry took notice. The Minnesota Industrial Sand Council was set up to lobby on behalf of the industry, with then Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan at the helm. A flurry of media reports erupted linking Egan, a longtime lobbyist, to the frack-sand industry group. Egan resigned as mayor on April 1 amidst public outcry.
“Some council members were appalled,” Overland said. “I was agitating like hell.”
With proposals for tough state regulations on the table and local ordinances that make it all but impossible to mine near Red Wing, it appears Save the Bluffs has so far succeeded in putting frack-sand mining on hold in the area. The natural gas boom facilitated by fracking has lowered gas prices nationwide and reduced the demand for drilling operations, and by extension, the demand for frack sand. But there is still plenty of work to be done in Goodhue County. Federal proposals to boost natural gas exports could trigger another frack-sand rush, and Fossen and other members of Save the Bluffs know the industry wants to be ready to break ground if another sand rush heats up.
“We’re not done fighting by any means … as long as that process of fracking exists, this will not be over,” Fossen said.