Amanda Lierman, a 2007 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire geology alumnus, is among a growing number of UW-Eau Claire graduates and students with expertise in geology, biology and chemistry who are bringing their knowledge of environmental and public safety practices to the growing industrial sand mining industry.
Lierman worked at Fairmount Minerals in Menomonie as a lead laboratory technician before acquiring her current position as a junior geologist at Preferred Sands in Bloomer.
"I have many responsibilities within the company," Lierman said. "My major job is to help find and establish reserves. I also help with mine planning and inventory analysis. When we have extra projects going on, be it chemistry or anything geology related, I help take the lead, especially in the chemistry sector because I spent a lot of time as a student working in the Materials Science Center at UW-Eau Claire running analytical chemistry on frac sand samples."
Currently, at least 10 UW-Eau Claire alumni are working in the industry in positions such as geologist, environmental health and safety coordinator, environmental compliance coordinator, science technician and sediment lab supervisor.
"Everything has an impact," said Dr. Kent Syverson, professor and chair of the UW-Eau Claire geology department. "Our job is to train people to mine in such a way that they're minimizing impacts. Geology, chemistry, mathematics, biology and physics are all disciplines that teach the tools to do this. We're training people to solve problems. That's why our students are getting hired."
Industrial sand mining has been a source of controversy in the community due to concerns regarding water quality and quantity, air quality and land reclamation, Syverson said, but UW-Eau Claire's field-based geology program helps students recognize factors that could cause problems during the mining process so they can work to address these concerns.
"We strive to teach students to think creatively so they can prevent problems from occurring, as well as manage any issues that arise," Syverson said. "Our broad-based program is preparing graduates to work in sand exploration, in environmental protection positions in the industry, and as regulators with the DNR. Current graduates are working in the industry to find appropriate mining sites, develop sound reclamation plans and minimize the impacts of processing and loading facilities."
As a new growth industry in the state of Wisconsin, frac sand mining presents "an opportunity for our graduates to find careers in their chosen field right here in the state," said Dr. J. Brian Mahoney, professor of geology. "UW-Eau Claire really is the go-to campus for companies in the industry to find competent and knowledgeable graduates for careers in the field. Our graduates get the jobs because of their outstanding field and computer skills. Companies come to campus for interviews and often call the geology department seeking graduates and students about to graduate to fill positions."
Frac sand is silica sand, also referred to as quartz, and has been mined in Wisconsin for more than a century for use in mortar and concrete, filter beds for drinking water and wastewater treatment, glass manufacturing and bedding sand for dairy operations. It is also used in hydrofracking, a process that combines water, frac sand and chemicals that are pumped under high pressure into drilling wells to fracture rock, allowing for the extraction of oil and natural gas from deep beneath the ground.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin has been producing frac sand for use in the petroleum industry for more than 40 years; however, the recent increase in demand has brought frac sand mining to the forefront of the Wisconsin economy.
"Wisconsin does historically have a mining heritage, which is the source of our 'Badger state' nickname," Syverson said. "But for the most part it had been lost until the recent increase in demand for frac sand mining."
UW-Eau Claire students are prime candidates to fill positions in frac sand mining because of the extensive opportunities for student research provided at the university, Syverson said.
"More than half of our geology majors participate in collaborative research with faculty," Syverson said. "They collect data, look at samples, crunch the data and present their findings. Many students have been published in professional journals or proceedings volumes. This gives our students experiences not found in other undergraduate programs, and it provides our students with an advantage for any number of jobs or graduate school. For our faculty to be doing real collaborative research with our geology undergraduate students is amazing and unique to UW-Eau Claire."
Dr. Katherine Grote, an associate professor of geology and a member of the Eau Claire County Groundwater Advisory Committee, said the UW-Eau Claire geology program's hydrogeology emphasis also is an important aspect in educating students because it prepares them for work in groundwater and groundwater protection.
"Students learn to predict how groundwater moves through the subsurface, how groundwater can be safely extracted, and how groundwater extraction affects neighboring wells and surface water," Grote said. "They also learn how to track contaminated groundwater and remediate contamination. The hydrogeology courses provide students with labs where they get real-life experience working in the field, performing groundwater modeling and sharpening their computer skills.
"Mining companies hire hydrogeologists to do permitting, develop reclamation plans, manage groundwater usage during mining and processing, and ensure groundwater isn't harmed by mining activities. Employers in the area have commented favorably on the high level of knowledge our students possess."
Grote also said many of UW-Eau Claire's hydrogeology graduates are taking jobs in the DNR, monitoring frac sand mining by reviewing frac mine applications, monitoring the installation of wells and monitoring environmental compliance for mining and processing operations.
Lierman's undergraduate research experience at UW-Eau Claire was instrumental in her eventual employment in the frac sand industry. As an undergraduate researcher in UW-Eau Claire's Materials Science Center, Lierman worked on silica sand samples from Cardinal Glass Co. in Menomonie, which was trying to find a mine in the area so they wouldn't have to ship sand in from farther away.
"That really helped jump-start my career," Lierman said. "I also learned a lot of valuable field skills and techniques for taking good notes and a little about survey work, which is something I also do for our company."
The many skills she acquired as an undergraduate helped her get a start in the industry at Fairmount Minerals, Lierman said.
"I had the chemistry background they were looking for in a laboratory technician to lead the lab in Menomonie," Lierman said. "I helped them set up their calibration curves, develop calibration standards and calibrate their equipment. I had a lot of knowledge that the average student just walking in off the street with a geology degree wouldn't have because of the great research opportunities at UW-Eau Claire."
Lierman's employer, Preferred Sands, relies on the Materials Science Center to do sample testing because of its quality analyses, quick turnaround time and competitive costs, she said.
"I continue to be impressed with the scientists who work in the Materials Science Center," Lierman said. "I know their capabilities and they really work with you to get to what you're after from their testing. It's been a positive experience for us at Preferred Sands, and the students in the lab are getting a valuable learning experience, which provides the workforce with more experienced workers to sustain the booming frac sand industry in Wisconsin."
Michele Maxson, a 2006 graduate with a comprehensive degree in biology and geology with an environmental science emphasis, is the regional environmental health and safety coordinator for Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co. (WISC), a subsidiary of Fairmount Minerals. Maxson's responsibilities include writing applications for environmental permits, speaking before board members, industrial hygiene testing, ventilation measurements underground, mine safety and environmental training, compliance inspections, community tours and education presentations, and site reclamation planning. She said her education at UW-Eau Claire has helped her in all aspects of her job.
"The growth I experienced from the beginning of my education to the end was amazing," Maxson said. "All of the research and academic writing I did helped me develop my skills and is so important to what I'm doing now."
Maxson also was involved in undergraduate field research experiences that helped prepare her for her career at WISC. She studied water chemistry through geologic units as part of a geology project and did two biology internships at Beaver Creek Reserve studying aquatic plants and macro invertebrates in Lake Wissota and Lake Holcombe, educating the Lake Associations on Eurasian water milfoil that was discovered during the study.
"I believe that both of my majors have helped me get where I am in my field today," Maxson said. "I worked closely with the WDNR during my internships at Beaver Creek Reserve, so I am very familiar with navigating their website on regulations. My biology background is very helpful in the site reclamation planning part of my job. We use native species of plants to repopulate the site after the mining is completed. I'm able to identify what is native to the area, what is not and what needs to be managed."
A recent WDNR report, "Silica Sand Mining in Wisconsin," states that an estimated 50-80 new jobs will be created by the average frac sand processing facility and 10 new jobs will be created by the average mine, not including the secondary jobs that will be created. The DNR also reports that approximately 60 mining operations were working on frac sand extraction and approximately 30 processing facilities were operating or under construction in Wisconsin as of January 2012. Current mining operations are primarily located in west central Wisconsin.
Rich Budinger, regional operations manager at WISC, said "the growth in the frac sand industry has been remarkable due to the increased demand for oil and gas in the marketplace."
WISC's website reports that the company's economic impact in Dunn County, including wages, benefits and secondary employment, is more than $2.4 million annually. Career opportunities within the industry require a wide range of skills, including site remediation and reclamation, permitting, supervising and coordinating plant construction, overseeing construction, quality control, monitoring air, water and transportation processes, locating groundwater supplies and sand prospecting.
"We employ plant operators, mechanics, lab technicians, management, and civil and geological engineers at our mines and processing centers," Budinger said. "We also have a regional staff that includes environmental, safety, quality control, engineering and chemistry positions."
When WISC is looking to fill new positions, a candidate with a geology, biology or chemistry degree and lab and analytical experience is highly desirable, Budinger said.
"Our regional quality control manager has a chemistry degree from UW-Eau Claire, and his analytical and procedural background in the lab has been very important to the company," Budinger said.
For more information on UW-Eau Claire graduates' work in sand mining in Wisconsin, contact Dr. Kent Syverson, professor and chair of UW-Eau Claire's geology department, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-836-3676; Dr. Katherine Grote, associate professor of geology at email@example.com or 715-836-5485; or Dr. J. Brian Mahoney, professor of geology at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-836-4952.