The make-or-break issue for the sand mine U.S. Silica is proposing to build in what is now the city of Sparta will be the mine's impact on the aquifer.
"The impact on the aquifer is the most critical thing," Jahn said. U.S. Silica is doing its own evaluation. "If it those answers come back all negative and we can't address the issues, that could be the fatal flaw in the process," said Jeff Jahn, mine planning and development manager and U.S. Silica's on-the-ground man for U.S. Silica.
For those of us who have dealt with sand mines operating in the eastern half of Monroe County, U.S. Silica is a whole new ball game. In Tunnel City, Unimin, for example, quietly bought up 500 acres of land under the name of a different company. Only then did it introduce itself to its neighbors, who woke up to find themselves surrounded by a giant sand mine.
U.S. Silica, on the other hand, has an option to buy, has launched an impressive outreach campaign and even brought in its CEO to meet with locals. It is planning an open house tomorrow.
The Sparta mine is a different kind of mine than those operating in the eastern half of the county. It is dredge mining, which is possible when the sand deposit and water table are high, as is the case in the Sparta site.
U.S. Silica would dig a hole down to the water table, put a dredge in the water and then pump the sand and water mixture, called slurry, through a pipe. There will be piles of sand, especially in the winter, since cold weather makes dredging tough and the mine will need enough sand to process through the winter. However, scenes such as those shown on this website of dust blowing off giant sand piles, are not U.S. Silica's M.O.
"That would be totally unacceptable," said Jahn, although he said that "occasionally, you're going to have a little dust."
Silica dust, a major concern in the eastern half of the county because it's invisible, travels long distances and is deadly, should not be a problem at the U.S. Silica mine, because that is part of a sand grinding process that U.S. Silica doesn't do, or at least won't to at the Sparta mine, Jahn said.
"Even is there's dust flying or the wind is blowing sand, it's not going to be micron -sized," Jahn said. "It will be the natural size of the grain. We obviously don't want sand blowing, it's a nuisance." But he said, if you're concerned that living next to a this sand mine means you'll get silicosis, the answer is no.
Another concern: how removing sand from the earth affects the local water supply and the water filtration process. Depending on a sand mine site, the layer of sand being removed can be anywhere from 30 to 100 feet deep and it can be an essential part of nature’s way of cleansing and filtering groundwater as it makes its way to the water table that is the source of a community’s water. Chippewa County, which has more sand mines than Monroe County, is studying the impact of frac sand mining on ground water.
The Sparta sand mine site, pictured at right, abuts wetlands and a floodplain. On the subject of jobs, Jahn said that U.S. Silica hopes to do local hire. "We're hopeful we can do dominant hires locally. U.S. Silica is looking for candidates with college degrees for at least some of the jobs. He estimated there will be 40 to 70 potential jobs. Twenty percent would be salary, 80 percent hourly. About two-thirds of the salaried positions will require a college degree and some hourly positions will also require more technical knowledge. Jahn said that at other mining locations, US Silica has found that many applicants applying for jobs that don’t require a college degree actually do have a degree.
U.S. Silica does not plan to do any more deforestation and, in fact, is concerned that some trees have already been taken down. "We would have paid the forester to leave them," he said. They are part of what U.S. Silica considers an important buffer zone.
He stressed the importance of working with the community and getting community input. A planned park between near was the suggestion of a local he said, and one that U.S. Silica would like to do immediately as a gesture of good will and to set the tone of the relationship it would like to have with the Sparta community.p
"We don't want to come in and make a mess of things, we want to make things better," he said, acknowledging that it would be bringing an industrial operation into an agricultural area.
Jahn said that the company was pleased that it was able to extend its option to buy with property owners by 30 days because that means that it can present a complete plan that should be able to address locals concerns.
"We really want to make the decision to buy or not by the end of the year," he said. The extension gives U.S. Silica the time to do the studies it needs but still meet that year-end deadline.
The next critical step besides handling dust are water table issues. Some have raised concerns about how removing sand can affect the water filtering process, which cleanses ground water on its way down to the water table. Jahn said that that is a question best answered by expects but he expects that the fact that western Wisconsin is rich in this kind of sand means the impact will be minimal. (Monroe County Sand Mines will report further on this issue).
U.S. Silica itself is doing further research on this.