Frac sand mining threatens health, welfare in Wisconsin

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Victoria Trinko hasn’t opened the windows in her Wisconsin farmhouse in two years. And when she goes outdoors on the farm her family has operated in Chippewa County since 1936, she often wears a mask.

Trinko lives less than a mile from a frac sand mining operation — and that’s nothing like living less than a mile from a sandy beach.

There has been a lot of attention to the harms associated with the hydraulic fracturing method of gas and oil extraction, but much less focus on related industries. Fracking involves intensive use of chemicals, water and fuel at drilling sites, as well as extensive build-out of pipelines and the heavy use of transportation fuel for trucks, barges and train engines. It produces huge volumes of liquid waste. And fracking requires enormous volumes of fine-particle sand found in certain regions of the country, including Wisconsin and Minnesota.

A frac sand mining operation began in 2011 near Trinko’s farm. Throughout the summer and fall of that year, Trinko, a town clerk for Cooks Valley, raised concerns at local meetings. The “dust” from the mining clung to her clothes. Grit coated her teeth. Whatever she was breathing, it irritated her throat and damaged her respiratory system.

In a raspy voice, Trinko recently described life near a frac sand mine. She was participating in a Sept. 25 news conference call prompted by the release of a report on the proliferation of such operations in Wisconsin and Minnesota and the medical, environmental, economic consequences.

“The billowing of silica sand has not abated since the mine was constructed in 2011,” she said.

Trinko now suffers from asthma and lives with the daily use of an inhaler and nasal spray. People don’t like to visit the farmhouse, which her daughter said smells like someone “just swept the garage.” Trucks rumble past the farm every few minutes, five or six days a week.

Her home, Trinko said, “is not a healthy place to live.”

Her daughter “worries that my life expectancy is going to be shortened,” she added.

Communities at risk

A new report, Communities at Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest, warns that thousands face threats from the 164 frac sand mining facilities concentrated in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They operate with little or no government oversight for the impacts on air and water.

Researchers examined permitting and monitoring, water and air quality, impacts of silica dust on human health, projected declines in property values and the expense of building and rebuilding infrastructure.

In fracking, the sand holds open the fractures created by the water, sand and chemicals pumped into the earth to allow for the extraction of natural gas and oil. The more frac sand used per well, the higher the yield. Frackers will use about 95 billion pounds of frac sand this year. 

Researchers have identified 164 active frac sand facilities and proposals for another 20 in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Their report said Wisconsin was “overrun by the industry prior to any understanding of the scale and impacts of the industry,” while Minnesota has been more cautious. The number of operations in Wisconsin increased from seven in 2010, the year Scott Walker was elected governor, to 145. 

Midwest mining

A frac sand operation involves:

• Removing the plants, soil or rock above a sand deposit.

• Excavating the sand, which includes blasting and crushing.

• Processing the sand, including rinsing it with water and chemicals.

• Piling and storing the sand.

• Transporting the sand.

Eventually the mined-out property is reclaimed, which may or may not include an effort to restore any vegetation. Opponents liken frac sand mining to mountaintop removal.

“Rural communities are becoming industrialized. … Eliminating the bluffs facilitates groundwater contamination. Runoff into streams, wetlands and lakes threatens habitats and fisheries,” the report stated.

Living downwind and on the route

The mining is concentrated in southwest Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota in what is known as the Driftless Area, 23,000 square miles famous for its sandstone bluffs. It’s an area with protected and unique species and scenery that draws many tourists.

Mapping by the Environmental Working Group found mining sites “in close proximity to schools, hospitals and clinics, where children and patients may be exposed to airborne silica,” said EWG executive director Heather White. Data indicated that in a 33-county area there are about 58,000 people living within a half mile of an existing or proposed frac sand mine or processing site. The number of people living within a mile is 162,000.

“None of the states at the center of the current frac sand mining boom have adopted air quality standards for silica that will adequately protect the tens of thousands of people living or working near the scores of recently opened or proposed mining sites,” said White.

“Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape,” said Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Elected officials and our states’ natural resources protection agency have largely dismissed local citizens’ concerns about their health, the health of their environment and their quality of life. Without a clearer view of the big picture of frac sand mining’s impact, laws that protect our communities’ air and water aren’t being developed or enforced.”

Less than 10 percent of Wisconsin’s frac sand facilities are required to monitor air emissions, prompting MEA to circulate a petition asking the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board to conduct a health and environmental study.

The report states that it was written “in an attempt to fill the vacuum of government leadership and regulatory authority” and the researchers are raising questions that “should have been posed long ago.”

Those involved in the report recommended “a step back” in the process and more review and regulation.

Report co-author Grant Smith said, “It is essential that local and state governments assess and take action based on the impacts of the full cycle of shale oil and gas drilling, including frac sand mining. Health, water and … economic concerns should be addressed comprehensively, rather than being ignored or dismissed. Protecting public health and safety is the first responsibility of government.”

White added, “We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development.”

The urgency is that frac sand mining grew 30 percent from 2013, 50 percent more than projected, and it could spread to other states with untapped or largely untapped frac sand deposits, including Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

Serious concerns

White and Trinko detailed the concerns for mining in the area, along with Wright; Dr. Peter W. Holm of Chippewa Falls; Civil Society Institute energy policy adviser Smith; and Crispin Pierce, of the Environmental Public Health Program at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

The issues:

• A mining operation daily withdraws up to 2 million gallons of water that is mixed with a compound called polyacrylamide flocculent to treat the sand. That compound itself is non-toxic. But its production method may leave minute traces of a neurotoxin. As piled sand dries, acrylamide-laden water can seep into groundwater. Also, there can be acid runoff from mines.

• The primary air pollutant is silica dust. The most dangerous type of  particle mentioned in the report is fine particulate matter, dust smaller than 2.5 micrometers, less than one-seventh the width of a human hair. These particles are associated with asthma, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, birth defects and premature death. Silica particles — they aren’t weatherworn like beach sand but instead have sharp, jagged edges — are produced in mining and dispersed in the processing and hauling of the sand.

• Crystalline silica, created when silica is crushed or exploded, occurs in the operations. The tiny particles can be ingested and become lodged in the lungs. Intense exposure can cause disease in a year, but it can take 10-15 years for symptoms to appear. Exposure has been linked to tuberculosis, emphysema, bronchitis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, chronic thyroiditis and kidney-related diseases.

• Before-and-after satellite images at mining sites show devastating impacts on the landscape.

• Frac sand mining can result in substantial declines in property value, local tax revenues, business revenue, decreased life span of roads, increased health care costs and negative impacts on school funding.