Fracking — a controversial oil and natural gas extraction method — is creating controversy along Main Street in this historic tourist destination.
Not that there is any actual fracking going on here, but a steady stream of heavy trucks loaded with silica sand, a key fracking ingredient, is stirring dust, noise and discontent.
“My peace is gone. I can’t sleep at night,” said Roger Knott, proprietor of McGregor’s Top Shelf, a gourmet and specialty food shop at 221 Main St.
The trucks from Pattison Sand Co., which mines silica sand near the town of Clayton about 10 miles south along the Mississippi River, often run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Knott, who counted 140 of the loaded 40-ton trucks during a single day last year.
“The roar shakes the windows. Layers of fine gritty dust cover everything,” said Knott, who worries he could lose his 4-year-old business if the trucks drive away tourists.
Forty-year McGregor businessman Jim Boeke said his biggest concern is the constant vibration. “I love the town’s old buildings, and I don’t want to see them shook apart,” said Boeke, who operates the River Junction Trade Company, a dealer in 19th century dry goods just up the street at 312 Main.
Both Boeke and Knott acknowledge the importance of the estimated 150 jobs created by Pattison Sand and believe that hydraulic fracturing — which entails the high-pressure injection of water, silica sand and chemicals into underground shale deposits — is a legitimate means to extract oil and natural gas.
They just wish that Pattison would route its trucks on the Highway 18 bypass around McGregor, rather than through the downtown business district.
City officials have met twice with general manager Kyle Pattison — who declined to be interviewed for this story — in a vain effort to secure such a compromise, according to City Administrator Lynette Sander.
“Let’s just say we feel like we didn’t accomplish anything,” she said.
Sander said the city put an 8-ton weight restriction on two city streets to discourage heavy trucks with little noticeable effect.
Sander said some residents believe the dust, noise, traffic and loss of serenity are affecting property values.
“I feel bad for the businesses. It’s a tough mix when you are catering to tourists,” she said.
The frac sand mining boom has tracked the hydro fracking boom, with demand for the specialized sand quadrupling from 2000 to 2009 and doubling again in 2010 to more than 12 million metric tons per year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Geologist and sand mining expert Kent Syverson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire, said sand from the Pattison mine is especially suitable for fracking because its strong, round quartz grains do not crush under high pressure.
The sand grains hold open fissures in the shale, facilitating extraction of oil and gas, he said.
Syverson said the mining of frac sand, which is done primarily in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Texas, is controversial in part because controversy surrounds the fracking process, which is subject to charges, among others, that it contaminates groundwater and air.
Several counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin have recently approved moratoriums on frac sand mining.
As for the mining itself, “the major issue is truck traffic, along with complaints that it degrades scenery and quality of life,” said Syverson, who believes that both hydro fracking and frac sand mining are, on balance, beneficial.
Clayton County supervisors Chairman Gary Bowden, who maintains a chiropractic office on McGregor’s Main Street, said the board met last year with McGregor residents concerned about sand truck traffic.
“We basically told them, ‘It (Main Street) is a state highway (76). We have no control,’” Bowden said.
Doug Hawker, the Department of Natural Resources environmental specialist who monitors water quality at the mine, also said Pattison officials have generally complied with applicable regulations and “ask before they take action.”
The state, in an April 1 consent order, did assess a $10,000 penalty for drainage practices that resulted in discharges of sand into the Mississippi, Hawker said.
Hawker said Pattison has been quarrying sand for the past several months after the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration shut down the underground mining operation because of unsafe supports.
The mining agency’s order remains in effect while the company works to establish safe conditions.
A Pattison employee, Rebecca Dysart, 48, was killed in a mining accident on April 24, 2008, when she was run over in the darkness by a 54-ton front-end loader operated in reverse.