Frac Sand Mining
What is Fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of removing natural gas deposits from deep undergound by fracturing layers of shale and pumping toxic fluids through the layers to bring the gas to the surface. Fracking doesn't happen in Wisconsin because we don't have the right type of bedrock. But the process requires a special type of sand with rounded grains--called silica sand or frac sand--that is abundant in Wisconsin. After being mined, the sand gets exported by rail to fracking sites in other states, where it is mixed with large volumes of water and dangerous chemicals and pumped underground to hold open fissures in the bedrock. The process has been implicated with groundwater contamination and public health risks. The lists of toxic chemicals that drillers pump into the water table are considered "trade secrets" of the industry and therefore hidden from the public. However, drinking water near fracking sites has been shown to contain neurotoxins, carcinogens, and radioactive elements. In some cases, so much methane leaks into well water that local residents can light their tap water on fire. Wisconsin's Save the Hills Alliance is concerned that the demand for frac sand will be nearly limitless and could convert "many thousands of acres of Wisconsin hills, farmland, and woods... to open pit mines." The map at left, from the Wisconsin Geologic and Natural History Survey, shows the locations of current and planned mines across the state as of October, 2013.
Frac Sand Threatens Air Quality
Dust from mining and processing operations contains respirable crystalline silica, small particles (about 1/20 the width of a human hair) that can irritate lung tissue. Regular exposure among workers at industrial sites is known to cause lung cancer and silicoses, a chronic respiratory disease. To date, no reliable studies have been completed on ambient exposure to residents around frac sand or similar sites, leading the Wisconsin DNR to reject calls for an ambient crystalline silica standard and air quality enforcement similar to California's. But that doesn't mean it isn't a problem. Dr. Crispin Pierce and students at UW-Eau Claire have found that levels of particulates in the air around the EOG Processing Plant in Chippewa Falls have increased since the plant began operating. Their measurements exceeded the EPA particulate emission standards and were significantly higher than both the DNR and EOG's own measurements. The EPA standards were established based on peer-reviewed health studies and are meant to protect human health. The Eau Claire team also found elevated particulate matter levels at Superior Silica Sands in Auburn and the Fairmount Mine in Menomonie.
Frac Sand Spills and Violations
In 2012, two frac sand mine operators were referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution for two separate spills that resulted in significant environmental damage. In April, a spill from a mine near Grantsburg, WI, owned by Interstate Energy Partners and operated by Tiller Corporation, was reported by a hiker. The spill had been flowing into the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway for five days before it was reported. A different mine near Blair, WI, owned by Preferred Sands, released a six-foot-high wall of sludge down a hill onto an Amish farmer's property, destroying his home and several out buildings. According to a report by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, nearly 20% of the state's 70 active sand operations were cited for environmental violations in 2012. 80-90 percent of sand sites inspected by the DNR were issued letters of noncompliance, according to a DNR air management engineer quoted in the article.
What You Can Do
New frac sand mines have started to come under greater scrutiny, with more proposals being denied by local government authorities, although many are still getting through and existing mines continue to expand rapidly in the absence of state oversight. Several counties and towns have passed moratoria on frac sand mining. If you live in one of the "yellow" counties on the map--or even if you don't--contact county and municipal officials and write letters to the editor to tell them to institute similar measures. Current moratoriums should be extended indefinitely in consideration of the public health and environmental consequences of both sand mining and the fracking for which the sand is used. You can help keep up the pressure to deny zoning permits for new mining or mine expansions by getting involved at the local level--attend hearings, run for office, and encourage your local elected officials to enact or extend a moratorium on frac sand mining in your area.
In 2013, WNPJ spearheaded a petition and resolution signed by 78 groups calling for a ban on frac sand mining in the state. You can still sign the petition here. Our resolution was in response to SB349, a bill that would have outlawed local ordinances regulating frac sand mining, air and water quality, or blasting. We also co-sponsored a rally against the bill and helped coordinate participation by affected citizens in the public hearing on it. By working with a diverse group of people and organizations from around the state and across the political spectrum, we helped generate enough public outcry against this attack on local democracy to beat back both SB349 and its watered-down (but still dangerous) successor, SB632... for now.
In April, 2014, we worked with citizens around the state to introduce resolutions at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress spring hearings directing the DNR to regulate cancer-causing frac sand mining dust (silica) to protect public health. Our resolution was approved in 23 of the 25 counties where it was introduced, with a vote count of 1,190 in favor and 533 against or 69% approval. You can help expand this effort at the April, 2015 Conservation Congress hearings; contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
A Sand County... Disappearing infographic by Carl Sack
Sand County, The Sequel by Sandra Steingraber.
"Frac Sand Industry Faces DNR Violations, Warnings." Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. March 3, 2013.
"Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin." Save the Hills Alliance, Inc.
Sharon Karon. "What Is Fracking." Chippewa Herald. July 30, 2011.
Sandra Steingraber. "The Whole Fracking Enchilada." Orion Magazine. September/October 2010.
"Water Contamination from Shale Gas Drilling." Parker Weichman Alonso LLP.
Rich Kremer. "Parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota Put Frac Sand Mining On Hold." Wisconsin Public Radio. November 28, 2011.
Other Useful Websites:
The Price of Sand: A new documentary on frac sand mining (and awesome photos)
Save the Hills Alliance: Information clearninghouse
Sand Point Times: Created by the Houston (MN) County Protectors, with contributions from the Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Mining (CASM) and the Concerned Citizens of St. Charles (Winona County, MN). Houston and Winona Counties are directly across the Mississippi River from Buffalo and Trempealeau Counties.
Crawford Stewardship Project: Crawford County environmental group
Monroe County Sand Mines: Citizen coalition against frac sand mining
Dunn County Sand: Citizen coalition
Save The Bluffs: Goodhue County, MN citizen coalition
Contested Landscapes: UW-Stout professor Thomas W. Pearson's website
The Frac Sand Weekly: Frac sand news and events
Hay River Frac Watch: Barron County citizen coalition
Frac Sand Frisbee: Buffalo County frac sand news and events
Photo: Superior Silica Sands mine in Clinton, Barron County. Photo by Jim Tittle.