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'Frac Sand' Mining Boom: Health Hazard Feared, but Lawmakers Aim to Ease Regulation

Number of Wisc. frac sand facilities increased from 7 in 2010 to 145 today, even though the health implications of the boom aren't yet fully understood.

Nov 5, 2013
A sand mining facility in Grantsburg, Wisc.

Republican state legislators in Wisconsin want to make it easier for companies to mine the "frac sand" under the state's farmland and forests and head off more stringent regulation on the booming and controversial industry.

The push sets up a showdown with local communities that are fighting to slow the pace of industrial frac sand mining, at least until its health and environmental effects are studied. And it propels Wisconsin—which has no natural gas or a single drilling rig—into the national fight over how to regulate fracking and related industries.

In three short years, dozens of small towns on Wisconsin's western edge have become an epicenter for mining silica sand, a necessary ingredient in the fracking process that has been implicated in thousands of cases of silicosis, a lung disease. It can take up to 10,000 tons of sand to frack a single well during its lifetime, and there are roughly 50 new wells being drilled in the United States every day.

The number of frac sand mines, processing facilities and transport centers in Wisconsin has increased from seven in 2010, to 84 today, with more than 60 others in different stages of development.

The rush to mine the sand deposits has sparked a bitter clash among residents in much the same way that fracking has divided gas-rich communities. On the one side are opponents who fear the health risks from breathing in silica dust that blows off piles of sand. On the other are those who argue that the state's $1 billion frac sand industry can generate crucial jobs and tax revenue.

"There's actual fear on the part of some that if they stand up and oppose the frac sand mines it will ripple through their families and their lifelong friends, and they will be ostracized or worse," said Mike O'Connor, a resident of Wisconsin's Buffalo County, a frac sand mining hub. Buffalo is one of a few counties that passed a temporary ban on frac sand permits.

Now, the Republican-led state legislature is charging into the fray—and angering activists.

Last month, six Republican legislators proposed a bill that strips local governments of the right to regulate facilities that mine or process sand for fracking. The legislation would void bans, air quality monitoring and other restrictions on frac sand mining that counties have approved in the absence of tougher state regulations. It also blocks communities and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from strengthening rules on rehabilitating mined land.

To get a permit, the DNR requires companies to "self-assess" the air and water pollution impacts of their frac sand proposals. The agency also enforces state and federal pollution standards and levies fines for violations at frac sand sites, but critics say enforcement is weak. What's most worrying for opponents is that the DNR doesn't monitor levels of PM 2.5, the tiniest and most harmful dust particle from silica sand. At least one county will soon vote on its own system for analyzing PM 2.5.

The bill is expected to be one of the most contentious and high-profile issues in the current session of the state legislature. It comes as some other frac sand states, led by Minnesota, are beginning to consider stronger regulations.

Supporters say that by eliminating the patchwork of local regulations, the bill would provide more economic certainty for industry. Many Wisconsin counties and townships with frac sand mines have their own standards for managing air quality, and this can be confusing for companies that also have to balance state and federal regulations, according to Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association.

"The core of the bill is to highlight regulatory certainty and regulatory authority," he said. "This bill is just the start of a conversation as far as I am concerned."

The industry expects to create 2,780 jobs once all mines under construction are completed, according to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Regulations Hang in the Balance

Fracking involves injecting a mixture of thousands of gallons of water, chemical additives and sand in shale rock formations to release oil and gas. But not any sand will do. The pure silica in Wisconsin is especially hard and round, which helps break open the rock on impact and keep fractures open for drilling.

Wisconsin likely dominates the frac sand market followed by Illinois and Texas, experts say, due to the explosion of mining projects in recent years. Today, the state sends 130,000 tons of sand to fracking operations in North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania a day, enough to fill more than 40,000 Olympic pools. Industrial sand giants, such as Superior Silica Sands and Preferred Sands, are the major players, but oil and gas companies including Texas-based EOG Resources  also own facilities.  

To get a breather from development and assess possible health consequences, three of the 19 counties with frac sand mines have passed temporary bans on new permits.

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