The once-largest frac sand company operating in Barron County is working to close the last of its operations here.
In recent months Superior Silica Sands has been reclaiming its mining sites in the Town of Arland. The company, which went through bankruptcy in 2019 and 2020, has already sold off its equipment and sand drying and transloading facilities.
The facility on Hwy. P in the Town of Arland was initially sold to a South Dakota-based construction company. The company took some equipment and then sold the building to Ardisam, a Cumberland-based manufacturer of outdoor gear.
Superior Silica Sands’ former New Auburn facility is now owned by Springbrook Express, a locally-based cargo and freight company that operates throughout the U.S. Lower 48.
Lastly, the drying and transloading plant on Hwy. 8 near Poskin is still operating, now owned by Blue Diamond Proppants, a locally-based partnership of five entities.
Blue Diamond is one of three remaining frac sand companies operating in Barron County. Calgary-based Source Energy Services continues to operate a mine along Hwy. 8 in the Town of Sumner and a drying facility in Weyerhaeuser. Piranha Proppants, a subsidiary of Oklahoma City-based Mammoth Energy Services, is operating in the former Chieftain Proppants facilities along Hwys. AA and SS in the Town of Dovre. Superior Silica Sands also once had a commercial office in Barron.
Blue Diamond Proppants also purchased Superior Silica Sands’ “Thompson Hills” mine along 21 ¼ Street in the Town of Sioux Creek to supply its Poskin facility.
But Superior Silica Sands’ three remaining mines in the Town of Arland are being reclaimed.
Bronson Thalacker, who oversees nonmetallic mining permits in the Barron County Soil & Water Conservation Department, said there are 12 permitted frac sand mines in the county, but not all are active.
Two mines have been fully reclaimed. Houston-based EOG Resources in the Town of Arland reclaimed its mine along 10 ½ Avenue in the Town of Arland between 2019 and 2021. Now-defunct Northern Industrial Sands did the same for its mine along 19 ¼ St. in the Town of Sioux Creek during the same time period.
Earlier this year, Superior Silica Sands began the full reclamation process for its mines along Hwy. P, 7th Street and 7 ½ Street in the Town of Arland.
Thalacker said it is typical for frac sand mines to be partially reclaimed as mining progresses.
“All operators are encouraged to do contemporaneous reclamation—reclaiming as they go,” said Thalacker. “Some operators are better than others, but every single one of them has reclaimed a little bit here and there.”
But a full reclamation is another story, effectively ending a mining operation.
Mine operators are incentivized to reclaim anything no longer in use. The State of Wisconsin and Barron County assess fees on mines, and the more acres that are disturbed, the higher the fee. Barron County’s nonmetallic mining ordinance also requires a bond for reclamation when a permit is issued, ensuring that there are funds for reclamation even if an operator entirely abandons a project. When reclamation is completed, the operator gets their bond money back.
“Superior Silica Sands’ permit is in good standing,” said Thalacker. “They’re reclaiming just like they said they would.”
Thalacker said the mines will be reclaimed in a manner to be consistent with the surrounding landscape. He said a common reclaimed land type is “passive recreational.” Pasture and other agricultural uses are also options, he said.
Thalacker said grass seeding and ponds to collect runoff are encouraged in reclamation, but he said not to expect anything large enough to support fish.
Superior Silica Sands’ sell-off of properties and closing of mines follows bankruptcy proceedings by its parent company, Emerge Energy Services, in 2019 and 2020.
Superior Silica Sands is one of several companies in northwest Wisconsin that could temper the boom and bust cycle of oil prices and other turbulence in the oil and gas industry over the past decade.
While the sand in this region is among the best in the world for its shape, size and hardness in hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—for oil and gas, many fracking companies have opted for sand suppliers closer to well sites to save on transportation costs.
In fact, Superior Silica Sands has not totally closed its doors, but now rather focuses its operations in Texas.
With the current price per barrel of oil in the $90 range, the business outlook looks stable for Barron County’s remaining frac sand producers.
But there’s no knowing how long any sort of stability will last.
“It can change so much as we’ve seen. From the boom in 2012 to bust cycle in 2016 and back at it again,” said Thalacker. “It’s boom or bust and no one knows what’s next.”