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[This post has been corrected.]

In March, I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Abbas and Robert Nehman of Allamakee County Protectors at the national Frack Attack summit in Dallas, Texas.  This grassroots group of concerned Iowans is leading the fight against frac sand mining in Iowa.

Earthworks has a 25-year history of fighting the destructive impacts of mining and the oil and gas industry. After Abbas and Nehman spoke to me about the damage this relatively new mining industry was wreaking in some parts of the country, I wanted to see the impacts for myself. So earlier this month I spent two days on the road in Wisconsin’s Frac Sand Land.

With the US in the middle of a oil and natural gas boom, there’s been increasing demand for a special kind of sand, known as silica sand, that’s essential for the horizontal hydraulic fracturing process used to extract fossil fuels from underground shale formations. Fracking uses 2-8 million gallons of water laced with chemicals and proppants such as silica sand, typically between 2.5-6 million pounds of proppants are required per fracture per well. 

Wisconsin is bearing the brunt of the impacts of this burgeoning industry. More than 100 frac sand mines have cropped up in the state in the past five years.

According to Patricia Popple, retired school principal, citizens across the state are becoming  concerned about this kind of mining. Patricia lives in Chippewa Falls, famous for Leinenkugel beer and now home to the largest frac sand transportation loading facility in the US. EOG Resources, formally known as Enron Oil and Gas Company before the Enron brand became toxic, made its first shipment in December 2011, and processes 2.6 million tons of frac sand per year, mined from the scenic sand bluffs of Chippewa County. The company ships the sand south by rail to Texas, where Wisconsin’s sand is used to prop open fractures in the Eagle Ford shale and northwest by rail to the Bakken Shale in North Dakota in order to extract oil.*

Patricia took us to visit New Auburn, one of many small, sleepy Midwestern towns that have suddenly been surrounded by heavy industry.*  Two processing facilities and four transportation loading stations have sprung up in and around the town in the last few years. One loading station is located only a quarter of a mile from the town’s K-12 school.

The sudden onrush of industry has changed the feel and fabric of the town. One resident counted 900 trucks rolling through New Auburn during an eight-hour period. Trains trundle through town all night long and the air is full of fugitive silica dust. Residents report furniture gritty with a fine coating of silica sand. Parents of children in the nearby school are particularly concerned.

I’ve seen a lot of destructive mining over the years and I have to admit that the frac sand mines don’t look as terrible as, say, the tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada. But looks are deceptive. The silica dust this mining process releases into the air is extremely harmful.

Washing the sand for use in fracking entails running water laced with chemicals with the sand through a centrifuge or slurry pipe in order to separate the fine dust from the round quartz sand, then pouring the sand into enormous piles. Dust flies off the sand in every stage of mining and processing, and more dust flies when the sand is moved around in open trucks, open train yards, and on conveyor belts.*

Even though the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires strong protections for frac sand workers, neither Wisconsin nor the federal government regulates silica dust for people living next to frac sand mining operations.

Residents’ living by these mines had petitioned for state rules to monitor the health impacts of silica sand, set an air emissions standard, and list silica sand as an air pollutant. But last year the state of Wisconsin denied their request.

Why Wisconsin?

Ten thousand years ago, much of the Great Lakes region was covered with glaciers that left behind a varied landscape where rolling hills give way abruptly to vast flatlands. The ancient seabed under what is now the American Midwest was mixed and churned through the process.

Except for one region, which somehow the glaciers bypassed; the Driftless Area. Southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, northwestern Illinois, and western Wisconsin are crisscrossed by bluffs. These steep and gorgeous hills make for poor farming, and are layered with quartz crystalline silica sand, once the bottom layers of ancient oceans. The tree-covered bluffs define the largely agricultural landscape of this unique corner of the country. But that’s changing.

The new way of looking at the Driftless Area is through the lens of what lies beneath those bluffs. Quartz crystalline silica sand is unusual — it is not desirable for the traditional major uses of sand and gravel in construction and road building. Quartz crystals are extremely hard and can withstand intense pressure. Thus, quartz silica sand is one of the only materials on earth strong enough to serve as a ‘proppant’, capable of holding open small fractures in shale rock more than a mile below the earth so that the tiny bubbles of oil and gas can escape.

So even though the nearest shale fracking operation is 500 miles away in the Antrim shale in Michigan, for the people of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, oil and gas is at the door.

Of the four states with concentrated quartz silica sand in the Driftless Area, Wisconsin is where sand mining is booming. The state once had a public intervenor watchdogging its natural resources department to ensure that the agency’s conservation mandate would not be lost when corporate interests sought access to Wisconsin’s resources. The office was abolished in 1996. Since then, the state has not had a single prosecution for air quality violations. Wisconsin, under anti-environment, pro-development Governor Scott Walker, has become a perfect place for resource extraction, just in time for the fracking industry to carve up the countryside.

Health crisis in Frac Sand Land

Similar to asbestos, silica sand enters the lungs and doesn’t leave. Under a microscope, the larger grains of crystalline silica are round, but smaller pieces less than 4 microns in size resemble sharp shards of glass. This is the size that is ‘respirable’, or easily inhaled by humans. Over time, it causes a variety of respiratory problems, including silicosis, which can take as long as 50 years after exposure to appear.

For years, silicosis has been thought of as an occupational hazard. Its impact is somewhat similar to exposure to asbestos, which is projected to cause half a million deaths over the next 30 years and causes illnesses with long latency periods like asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

Wisconsin citizens who live around frac sand mining, processing and transportation facilities, as well as those who live around fracking operations, are extremely concerned about the long term impacts of their exposure to silica dust.

But in order to get the state to take action and regulate this industry, they need to produce clear and convincing evidence of a problem. Wisconsin, in turn, needs to have a regulatory standard to measure the industry’s fugitive silica dust releases against. However, since there’s no official monitoring happening, state agencies in charge of pollution control cannot act. And with no regulatory standard, there’s nothing to enforce.


The original, uncorrected paragraph read as follows: Washing the sand for use in fracking entails creating enormous piles of sand and pouring water laced with chemicals over it in order to separate the fine dust from the round quartz sand. More dust flies when the sand is moved around in open trucks, open train yards, through conveyor belts.

The original, uncorrected sentence read as follows: New Auburn, a small, sleepy Midwestern town that has suddenly been surrounded by heavy industry.

The original, uncorrected sentence read as follows: The company ships the sand south by rail to Texas, where Wisconsin’s sand is used to prop open fractures in the Eagle Ford shale in order to extract oil.

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