Frac Sand Rush Threatens Wisconsin, Minnesota Towns, Advocates Warn
Victoria Trinko hasn’t opened the windows of her Wisconsin home in two years — for fear of the dust clouds billowing from a frac sand mine a half-mile away.
“This blowing of silica sand has not abated since the inception of the mine in 2011,” Trinko, a farmer and the town clerk for Cooks Valley, Wisconsin, said during a media call on Thursday highlighting an industry proliferating alongside horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Frac sand is an essential ingredient in the process of natural gas drilling.
Trinko is among residents, advocates and scientists warning of risks posed by the frac sand boom — from heavy truck traffic and sleep-stymying lights and noise. At least one truck hauling silica sand travels a road by Trinko’s home every three minutes. When HuffPost spoke with Trinko in 2012, she had just been diagnosed with asthma — and her doctor suggested the condition was pollution-related.
The industry is concentrated in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Rising demand, however, threatens to expand frac sand mining into New York, Massachusetts and 10 other states, according to a report
released Thursday by the Civil Society Institute’s Boston Action Research, a human rights advocacy group, in partnership with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group and other environmental health advocates.
On top of the burgeoning rush for natural gas, the appetite for frac sand has been inflated by the recent discovery that using more sand per well increases fracking yields. An energy consulting firm estimated that fracking companies will blast nearly 95 billion pounds of frac sand into wells this year — an increase of almost 30 percent over last year, exceeding predictions. The number of frac mines have more than doubled in the last decade, with Wisconsin and Minnesota now hosting a total of 164 active facilities, according to the advocacy report. An additional 20 mines have been proposed in the two states.
Deanna Schone of Glenwood City, Wisconsin, lives near one of the proposed frac sand mines. She told HuffPost that city council members had “made their intentions known” in early September that they will allow the mine to proceed in a location about a half-mile from both her home and her kids’ school.
“We heard at the beginning that this was going to happen very quickly. That’s very much what happened,” said Schone, noting that most decisions seemed to have been made “under the table” before the public caught wind. In an effort to protect residents in regions not yet experienced with the frac sand boom, she offered some advice: “Talk to your local government. Do you have zoning? What are types of things that you could do to at least slow down the process?
“Once attorneys and big money are involved, it’s an uphill battle,” Schone added, as she stood outside her home and watched two young deer eating acorns off her kids’ basketball court. “This is part of why we don’t want to live in an industrial area.”
An interactive map published with the new report shows that more than 58,000 people live within a half-mile of existing or permitted frac sand mining sites across a 33-county span in Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as a small corner of Iowa. Twenty schools also fall within that half-mile range.
Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, highlighted his industry’s own list of “facts about frac sand mining in Wisconsin,” and offered a broad critique of the advocates’ publication.
“The groups behind this report have a definite political and social agenda against sand mining, so their conclusions are not surprising,” Budinger wrote in an email to HuffPost. “But their conclusions also fail to offer an accurate picture of sand mining in Wisconsin and the industry’s major contributions to the state’s communities and economy.
“There is no scientific evidence that ambient respirable crystalline silica that may be associated with sand mines poses a health risk,” said Budinger, referring to the frac sand dust that tops advocates’ concerns. He added that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other regulators “require air permits and fugitive dust control plans, which limit emissions and off-site impacts from dust.”
Crispin Pierce, a professor of environmental health at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has been studying these potential health impacts for the last five years. He offered a different take during the media call.
The state regulatory agency, Pierce explained, requires fewer than 10 percent of the 140 frac sand operations in Wisconsin to monitor their emissions — and not the fine particulate matter and silica that he said are the “most dangerous components” of those emissions. Further, the state asks the companies to monitor themselves.
Of tests conducted by the industry and by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, none have detected levels of pollution that exceeded federal standards, Pierce said.
“To overstate the certainty that these issues are causing problems is to dilute their importance,” said Pierce. But he underscored “some real concerns,” including “potential long-term exposures and increases in cardiovascular disease, premature death and lung cancer,” as well as threats to water availability and quality.
A television station in Chippewa County, Wisconsin, reported last week that heavy rains had washed fine particles off a frac sand mine site and clouded a local waterway. Because state regulations for the mines are vague and “open to interpretation,” mining companies can get away with the pollution, an engineer with the county suggested.
Illinois is among the most recent states facing a potential surge in strip-mining for frac sand. While its deposits remain largely untapped, that’s changing fast, said Ashley Williams, a resident of Ottawa, Illinois.
She mentioned a battle HuffPost first covered in 2012, which continues over Mississippi Sand’s proposed mine near the entrance of Starved Rock State Park. The bluffs, canyons, waterfalls and wildlife found there entice more than 2 million visitors each year.
The 425-million-year-old rock formations also contain some of the nation’s highest quality frac sand, which has drawn the mining companies. Environmental groups, with help from lawyers and students at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, are fighting multiple mining permits around the state, including the one now held by Mississippi Sand.
“They’re descending on our community like sand sharks,” said Williams, “and it seems like there’s no end in sight.”