Frac Sand Mining
Frac sand mining is literally booming in western Wisconsin – and it’s wreaking havoc on air and water quality and public health.
The hills of western Wisconsin contain the sand necessary to do hydraulic fracking for natural gas in other parts of the country, which means our rural communities have become Grand Central Station of open-pit frac sand mining. In just the last five years, Wisconsin frac sand facilities have grown from less than a handful to more than one hundred!
|In an initial inspection, DNR found that more than 80% of Wisconsin sand mines are not meeting clean air or water laws. Wisconsin sand mine pictured.|
Open-pit frac sand mining:
- Endangers productive soils needed for agriculture.
- Damages surface waters.
- Draws down groundwater reserves.
- Exposes families to toxic chemicals.
- Exposes communities to airborn particulate matter that is damaging to lungs.
This relatively new industry has very little oversight in Wisconsin. Little oversight means big consequences for the environment, public health, and quality of life. In fact, the wild, wild west nature of Wisconsin’s frac sand operations has Minnesota using us as an example of how not to mine for frac sand.
1. Inadequate laws. Wisconsin law does not account for the cumulative impacts of this rapidly growing industry. Currently, when the state of Wisconsin considers a permit, they evaluate water use, discharge, and air pollution from just one mine site at a time. The rapid expansion of clusters of these mines does not take into account the cumulative impact for an area.i
2. Insufficiently enforced current laws. The few Wisconsin state laws that are applicable to frac sand mining are rarely enforced. The DNR estimates that at least 20% of sand mine companies operating in Wisconsin have violated the state’s minimum standards. The DNR has sent letters of noncompliance to 80-90% of frac sand facilities they’ve visited (The DNR usually expects 90% self-compliance within a regulated industry).ii
|The bluffs of western Wisconsin contain the hard, high-quality sand needed for hydraulic fracking, placing them at risk of open-pit frac sand mining.|
The inhalation of silica sand can cause silicosis, an incurable disease that has also been known to cause cancer. Because of this threat, the federal government regulates workers’ exposure to the dust, but there are no limits set for the general public. Worker exposure standards are not designed to take into account the impact that the sand will have on the general public, especially infants, children, the elderly, or those with existing health problems. There are no national or state standards for airborne silica dust and therefore are not considered when permits are issued.iii
Silt and Sand. Most Wisconsin mine sites are only designed to withstand a 10 or 25 year rain event. During a larger rain event, silt, sand, and even gravel can be washed into nearby surface waters, threatening aquatic wildlife, habitat, and water quality. Recent examples include:
- The Preferred Sands mine, a Minnesota-based company in Trempealeau County, caused a mudslide after a heavy storm.
- Interstate Energy Partners, a Minnesota-based company, spilled silt-laden water from a holding pond into the St. Croix River in Burnett County over the course of five days.
- The Panther Creek Sand mine in Clark County was found to have a leaky holding pond after the DNR received a complaint about muddy water in a stream.
- The Chippewa Sand Company had a wastewater pond overflow in a drainage area, eventually soaking into the soil.
Chemicals. There are currently no drinking water standards for some of the chemicals used in sand mining. Many labs do not even test for them, so the health impacts, if any, won’t be known for some time. Two of the most common chemicals used in the sand mining process are hydrochloric acid, which helps to break up the minerals, and polyacrylamides which is used to remove unwanted minerals from the sand. Hydrochloric acid is a clear, colourless solution of hydrogen chloride in water. It is a highly corrosive, strong mineral acid with many industrial uses. Hydrochloric acid is found naturally in gastric acid. Polyacrylamides can turn into acrylamide, a neurotoxin and carcinogen. California requires products containing acrylamide to be labeled “a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer.”iv
Shrinking supply. Sand mining and processing utilize significant amounts of groundwater, usually requiring high-capacity wells (a well with a pump capacity of 70 or more gallons per minute). Water is used to clean and sort the sand, as well as for dust control. Expected average water use ranges from 420,500 gallons to 2 million gallons per day. The effects of groundwater pumping are specific to the local hydrogeology and proximity to surface waters.
The DNR is able to limit groundwater pumping rates to protect the water supply of all users. However, this is not always successful. Currently, Hi-Crush Proppants in Augusta is facing potential penalties for operating two high-capacity wells on its site without state permits and operating one well at a higher pumping rate than the permit allows. The DNR had originally limited them to 4 million gallons per month to protect two nearby trout streams and a municipal well. The DNR water supply specialist on the case explained that the company wasn’t getting the amount of water they felt they needed from their two permitted wells for sand washing, so they added a couple more.v
Contamination. Groundwater contamination is a possibility once topsoil is removed to access the sand. Topsoil is a natural filter and is often found within layers of the limestone common in these frac sand mining areas. Because limestone is porous, it can lead to sinkholes and fissures that allow polluted runoff to directly tunnel into the groundwater. Without any of the natural filtering that would normally occur, drinking water is put at risk.
Around-the-clock noise from equipment operation and blasting can drive wildlife away from mining areas. This results in disrupted reproduction for the wildlife and loss of quality hunting, trapping, and nature study opportunities for us. In addition, increased silt or other pollution entering nearby surface waters can lead to impaired aquatic habitat and fish kills.
Quality of Life:
The increase in frac sand mines across Wisconsin has led to a decreased quality of life for many citizens. Among the biggest complaints are the noise and road deterioration caused by increased truck traffic. Light disturbance is another issue because mining operations are permitted to run all night. Demand for frac sand has also exponentially driven up the price of land. In some areas, prices exceeding $10,000 per acre have been reported.
1. Local communities must have the power to protect their environment, public health, and quality of life. Local communities must retain the right to develop and enforce local zoning ordinances that limit harmful sand mining activity.
2. The state of Wisconsin needs to strongly monitor and enforce current air and water laws against harmful frac sand mining facilities.
3. Wisconsin must consider whether new public health or environmental protections are necessary to deal with the onslaught of new frac sand mining facilities.
1. WLCV will oppose any effort to limit or preempt local governments from implementing zoning ordinances that are meant to protect their communities from the impacts of frac sand mining.
2. WLCV supports the 5-bill package introduced by Sen. Kathleen Vinehout to help defend Wisconsinites from the threats of frac sand mining. Read more here.
3. WLCV supports efforts to improve and strengthen protections for communities and natural resources at risk from frac sand mining. For example, the Minnesota legislature is currently considering legislation that would evaluate the cumulative impact of the frac sand industry. Specifically, the bill would give the state more authority to oversee mining and allow state leaders to study whether stricter rules are needed to protect the environment and public health.vi
News and Resources
- March 27, 2013: La Crosse Tribune: Sen. Vinehout Wants Sand-Mining Limits
- March 10, 2013: Eau Claire Leader Telegram DNR reviews mine’s permit violations in Augusta
- WLCV press release response to State of the State 2013