Safely buried since the Pleistocene age, danger is stirring. Driven by unbridled lust for energy and wealth, small men with giant tools are unleashing a lethal demon on villages and farms across America’s upper Midwest.
OK, now that I have your attention, here’s the less sensational, but still chilling version of how the mining of pre-glacial sands—material essential to the hydraulic fracking of oil and gas—threatens the health and safety of humans and the environment.
The downside of extracting hydrocarbons by high-powered fracturing of petroleum-rich shale rock is well known. But the business of fracking could not function without a lesser-known tandem industry: mining pre-glacial sand, composed of crystalline silica, which lies in large deposits just below the surface in areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Increasingly, vast, open-pit frac-sand mines blight the landscape like earth’s own acne.
During the fracking process, tough, spherical grains of frac sand are “suspended in fluid and injected into oil and gas wells under very high pressure,” explains the website of Wisconsin-based Glacier Sands LLC. “The fluid pressure opens and enlarges fractures as well as creates new ones. Sand grains are carried into these fractures and prop them open after the fluid is pumped out.” The “proppants” may also create an escape route for methane, benzene, toluene and radon that are naturally present underground as well as for toxic chemicals used to frack and drill.
While concerned citizens see risk, the industry touts job creation and cheap energy. “It’s all an upside,” Glacier Sands vice president, Brian Iverson told WinonnaDailyNews.com about a proposed facility, 1,000 feet from a school. “We don’t see a downside.”
Others do. Environmentalists warn that that frac-sand mining can: generate airborne particles that cause cancer, silicosis and other lung diseases; undermine conservation and exacerbate climate change by perpetuating cheap fossil fuels; blight the landscape; destroy property values; create 24/7 truck traffic, noise and infrastructural damage to tax-payer-funded roads and bridges; undermine aquifer quality and renewability; fill streams with silt, and create ponds fouled with industrial waste; contaminate groundwater with processing chemicals; and ruin fertile farm land.
Fracking goes back to 1949, when Halliburton, of Dick Cheney fame, became the first company to try it commercially. The technology came into its own in 2005 after Congress passed the “Halliburton loophole,” exempting fracking from most major federal environmental regulation. By 2008, a push to increase domestic energy sourcing and higher fossil fuel prices had helped spur a fracking boom. In the decade ending in 2012, shale gas production expanded 2,400 percent nationally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported.
Fracking industries bought $3.7 billion worth of sand nationally in 2011, according to the Freedonia Group, a business research firm. Every week, just one 400-acre mine and processing facility in Trempealeau County, Wis., “ships 7,500 tons of sand by rail to oil and gas fields in Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania,” Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Kate Prengaman wrote in July 2012.
“[B]leak sandy wastelands punctuated with waste ponds and industrial installations where Wisconsin hills once stood.” Ellen Cantarow reported her ecxcellent TomDispatch.com article about frac-sand mining.
Frac-sand mining’s most imminent threat to human health is silica dust, which Wisconsin’ labels a “carcinogenic hazardous air pollutant” and a cause of silicosis. That incurable, progressive disease was endemic in miners and stoneworkers until federal regulations mandated monitoring and cleaning workplaces.
There are no such federal standards for silica in ambient air. The fine particles (less than 4 microns, referred to as PM4), which can cloud the air during digging, processing, storing and transport, cause the “ most concern,” the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency warns. And although concentrations of silica from sources including frac-sands “could be above a level of concern,” a 2011 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) report notes, “there are no generally accepted methods for monitoring PM4 in ambient air, and the state, in any case, lacks regulatory authority.
“This means,” the Wisconsin DNR concluded, “it is not possible at this time to determine conclusively whether or to what extent the quantity, duration or types of silica emissions in Wisconsin may be a public health concern.”
Until then, perhaps the public could just cut down on breathing.