The Center is known for its comprehensive coverage of frac sand mining. But let’s face it … our stories are long. So in the time it takes for you to say “frac sand mining” 12 times fast, here’s an intro to the issues.
One experimental feature: We asked the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, which represents some of the biggest mining companies operating in Wisconsin, and Midwest Environmental Advocates, a Madison-based public-interest law firm that has pushed for greater scrutiny of the industry, to let us know what they thought of this. We’ve annotated the graphic with their comments.
Too lazy to scroll? Watch the video version on our frac sand project page.
1. Frac sand mining is not fracking.
A lot of people get this confused. Frac sand mining is not fracking. It is mining for the sand that gets injected into deep wells in the hydraulic fracturing process of extracting oil and natural gas. This process is happening in places like Texas and North Dakota, not Wisconsin.
WISA: Absolutely true – Wisconsin doesn’t have the oil and natural gas deposits that fracking targets. But it’s also true that “frac sand mining” is a misnomer. Wisconsin-mined sand is used for a variety of end purposes including glassmaking, foundry and metal casting, construction, production of paint and coatings, recreational materials and more, in addition to oil and gas exploration. It would be just as accurate to call Wisconsin sand “glass sand” or “playground sand.” The umbrella term that fits all uses is “industrial sand.”
2. This whole thing happened insanely fast.
Millions of years ago, ancient seas and winds created a whole lot of perfectly round, 0.4 to 0.8-millimeter silica sand in Wisconsin. As a result the Dairy State is the largest supplier of frac sand in the country. Demand really started to boom around 2011, when new fracking technology emerged, and the state was so caught off guard it was not even track the mines at first; the Center’s journalists, not public officials, made the first map. Currently, Wisconsin has more than 125 operational or proposed facilities.
WISA: Although industry growth has been tremendous, industrial sand mining has been and continues to be strictly regulated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and many other state and federal agencies. The WDNR is not required to have published maps locating any permitted operations. The Center did a great job in putting its map together and deserves credit for it, but map or no map, the WDNR is very much in control.
3. Someday the mines will run out of sand. What will they leave behind?
Wisconsin sand miners have dug up farms, cranberry bogs and natural landscapes to create mines ranging in size from a few acres to hundreds. There is currently one statewide reclamation statute, NR 135, but it’s up to counties to approve the details, and the outcomes will vary. It could take years before we know for sure how these landscapes will really be restored.
WISA: The WDNR has delegated authority to administer NR 135 to individual counties and our experience has been anything but unknown. Some counties do a better job than others, to be sure, but all should focus on storm water management, erosion control, seed mixes and slope stability at a minimum. Reclamation plans must be approved before a company can start mining a site, and some reclamation plans take it to the next step by forming a partnership with the county, land owner and mining company. Multiple WISA members have these partnerships with their local communities, where reclamation practices focus on end land use that brings benefit to the community.
The industrial sand industry has been conducting reclamation for decades and is a leader in the mining industry. We lobbied for a statewide law requiring reclamation and helped write the regulation. Over the last 20 years, we have been represented on the WDNR Nonmetallic Advisory Committee. We have provided numerous tours and presentations to many groups including the regulatory authorities on reclamation, many units of government, educational and professional organizations. We are participating in studies with the University of Wisconsin, including a study to look at groundwater infiltration rates on reclamation conducted during different decades. We have pioneered geomorphic reclamation techniques and shared that information.
Learn more about reclamation on the WISA website.
4. Digging up big tracts of land changes the landscape.
Sand mines are bound to affect local plants and animals. In 2013 we found that most mines weren’t checking for the Karner blue butterfly or other endangered species before digging. But industry officials say mines can be a plus to habitats if the reclamation is done well.
WISA: Threats to the Karner blue butterfly at most sites were present prior to mining and can be linked to the use of herbicides by farms that previously operated on the land. The herbicides and farming reduce the presence of wild lupine and other plant species that the butterfly depends upon. Mining and responsible reclamation practices could have a positive effect on the butterflies and other wildlife species through reintroduction of their native habitat – in fact, mines do a tremendous amount of work both in terms of reclamation and stewardship of many non-mining areas that benefits a significant number of species.
5. People are worried about silicosis.
News flash: Where there is sand mining, there is a lot of sand. And some residents are not happy about the dust they’re seeing on driveways and windows. Inhaling fine silica dust is dangerous, but luckily for Wisconsin our next-door neighbor has stepped up to the sand piles and been monitoring air quality. So far Minnesota’s preliminary data suggest mines’ neighbors don’t have too much to be worried about. Workers likely face higher risks.
WISA: The dust issue is an important one for mining companies, and there have been many recent studies on the topic. There is also historical information, however, that shows this issue is primarily an occupational hazard for mine workers, specifically when it comes to concerns about crystalline silica. The WDNR’s pending strategic analysis should bring the facts and science to the surface of this discussion. Fugitive dust can come from varying sources including farm fields, construction sites or mines. The WDNR regulates particulate matter for non-metallic mining, including industrial sand mining. More information is available in WISA’s white paper on crystalline silica.
MEA: Even short-term exposure to silica dust can cause silicosis, a deadly lung disease. Currently the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources does not regulate or even monitor this type of dust. Other fine dust is also extremely harmful to respiratory and cardiovascular health. The DNR regulates fine dust but requires limited monitoring. Minnesota conducted air studies, and the initial results are promising. However, Minnesota’s studies may not be robust enough to provide scientific proof that there are no health concerns from frac sand air emissions.
Extrapolating from the limited air data the DNR is collecting, sand plants may be emitting too much fine dust. And a study by Wisconsin Professor Crispin Pierce also may show unsafe levels of fine dust near frac sand mines. We only got a sneak peak at the results, and the full study will be published this fall. The short answer is: we need more and better data to close the book on air impacts for neighbors.
All the data we’ve seen suggests a serious potential risk to workers from fine dust AND silica dust. Federal worker safety organizations OSHA and NIOSH do have limits on silica dust that workers can be exposed to. A study at fracking sites that use frac sand showed most facilities exceeded the health standards for workers’ exposure to silica dust.
6. Nobody wants mining wastewater in the Mississippi (or houses or drinking water).
Water worries have surfaced. Many mining facilities have violated permits, mainly for water issues. In a few cases, wastewater laden with sediment and chemicals has leaked into rivers, streams or someone’s garage. Environmentalists question whether monitoring is adequate. Mining reps have responded by saying those mistakes shouldn’t tarnish the whole industry.
WISA: Water use is a great opportunity for improvement for all industries. Many mining operations have recycling systems that use very little groundwater. High-capacity wells are regulated by the WDNR for both use and location. Read WISA’s white paper on ground water and industrial sand mining.
MEA: While it’s true that frac sand mining facilities do use a lot of water, the amount of water the industry uses is far less than other industries that use high-capacity wells to pump groundwater, such as agriculture.
But citizens’ concerns about water are mainly about frac sand mining activity’s impact on the quality of surface and drinking water. Frac sand mining and processing is happening in mostly rural areas of Wisconsin where people often depend on private wells for drinking water and where people enjoy fishing in lakes and streams. When mining activity involves a lot of wastewater, stormwater runoff when it rains, and chemicals used in washing the sand for fracking, neighboring residents are asking the state government that isn’t doing enough to monitor the industry, “what’s in our water?”
7. Traffic is a drag. But not a terribly unsafe one.
Once all that sand is dug up, it’s gotta go somewhere. Truck and rail traffic has gone up since the frac sand boom, making delays longer and more frequent. Flaming Bakken oil trains have made headlines recently, but a 2014 Center investigation found that frac sand traffic had not led to more deaths or injuries.
WISA: Trucks and increased rail also bring indirect jobs.
MEA: Longer delays at rail crossings are a problem, especially for people trying to get to work or emergency vehicles trying to get across town. But another problem is with the increase in noise. More trains means more horns and rumbles around the clock for homeowners. Mining activities also include more truck traffic and industrial noise and light around mining sites. This is a big change to people who chose living in a rural area for the peace and quiet.
8. Who’s making bank? Unclear.
Frac sand mining is a big industry with big profits, but it’s still unclear where all that money is going. In some cases local property owners are making bank, and mine representative say they are adding jobs left and right. But opponents still worry this money is leaving with the sand.
WISA: Direct and indirect economic benefits of industrial sand mining in Wisconsin are tremendous and measurable. There are economic studies that present a multiplier of 1.6 indirect jobs for every job at a mine or processing site. These indirect jobs include truck drivers, goods and service delivery jobs, maintenance contractors, excavator contractors, construction jobs, consultants, engineers, etc. Most of these jobs are local, created within about a 100-mile radius. Some of the jobs created are not local, such as the equipment manufacturer for a particular piece of processing equipment at an out-of-state factory. But keep in mind that the distribution network for out-of- state goods and services requires local people who support the equipment through dealerships. So the local economic benefit primarily comes from jobs and people spending money locally at the grocery store, gas stations, mortgages from banks, etc. The profit from the sale of sand is used in positive ways as well and has been used as capital to build more mines and processing plants which create more jobs. The idea of economic benefit leaving with the sand is simply not accurate.
9. Everyone wants the state to answer all their questions.
To say the state was unprepared for the frac sand boom would be an understatement. As a result the state is playing catch-up this year with a new strategic analysis of the industry sparked by citizen activists and a statewide petition. Frac sand miners say they are eager for the debate to be put to rest with some real science.
WISA: The WDNR strategic analysis is an opportunity to educate more people within the state and to get the facts straight.
10. We’re hammering out some control issues.
Currently, Wisconsin has few statewide rules specifically aimed at frac sand mining; it’s up to county governments to enforce and regulate things like reclamation and zoning. Some people call it “local control.” Miners call it a “patchwork of regulations.” Whether or not current state officials will respond with a set of statewide regulations is unclear, but the fight could hit the Legislature again this year.
WISA: There is local control in place through zoning law. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delegated the authority to manage the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to WDNR. All industry and business needs regulatory certainty to continue to invest responsibly. This discussion will continue.
11. Mines that don’t like the rules can (sometimes) get better ones.
Some mines are working that patchwork to their advantage. Local officials favoring mines sometimes annex them to help them out. Basically, municipalities can suck up nearby mines like amoebas and give them tax breaks or other nice things. This upsets neighbors who don’t want mines to get a free pass.
WISA: Annexing has been a method for local communities to identify regulatory authority and certainty. Annexing has been going on for many reasons over many different land uses. You may want to look at the amount of annexed property or land use over the last five years in Wisconsin – mining makes up a small percentage of that.
12. Whither the oil markets go, thither shall frac sand go too.
Until recently industry analysts were straight-up bullish on the demand for Wisconsin frac sand. And while mine reps haven’t noticed a major decrease yet, tanking oil prices have caused some analysts to temper their enthusiasm for frac sand.
WISA: The oil market, like many others, has a cycle. Experienced companies will continue to do business responsibly during these times. Additionally, it is important to remember that while some inaccurately refer to all industrial sand as “frac sand,” much of the industrial sand mined in Wisconsin is used for other purposes, such as glass and foundry work. Although the oil and gas markets are going through a downturn, other industrial sand markets such as those are continuing to do well with the economy.
Animator Jacob Berchem is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.