Frac sand mining poses a little-understood threat to human health, the environment, and local economies, according to a report issued by the Civil Society Institute's Boston Action Research (BAR) and released in cooperation with Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA).
According to the new BAR report, Communities At Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest, a significant portion of frac sand mining in the U.S. is concentrated today in Wisconsin and Minnesota, which have a total of 164 active frac sand facilities, and another 20 that have been proposed.
Wisconsin alone is on track to extract 50 million tons of frac sand a year – the equivalent of 9,000 semi-truck loads a day and enough to fill the nation's second tallest building, the former Sear Towers in Chicago, 21 times a year.
Drilling companies are now finding that the use of more frac sand per well increases shale gas and oil yields. As a result, analysts estimate that fracking companies will require 95 billion lb. of frac sand this year, an increase of almost 30 percent from 2013 and 50 percent above initial forecasts. Given the explosive growth in fracking nationwide, extraction could spread to several 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.
Report coauthor Grant Smith, senior energy policy advisor, Civil Society Institute, said: “The rapid expansion in the United States of oil and shale gas drilling, including hydraulic fracturing, has a hidden side filled with problems: the mining of the special sand that is essential to fracking a drilled well. As this report makes clear, 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 other economic concerns should be addressed comprehensively, rather than being ignored or dismissed. Protecting public health and safety is the first responsibility of government.”
EWG Executive Director Heather White said: “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. EWG's mapping research found frac sand sites in close proximity to schools, hospitals and clinics, where children and patients may be exposed to airborne silica. Chronic exposure can lead to emphysema and lung disease. We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development.”
Commenting on the health aspects of the report, Crispin Pierce, PhD, associate professor and program director, Environmental Public Health Program, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said: “Our research group has tested the air around frac sand plants over the last five years and found elevated levels of fine airborne particulates including silica in neighboring communities. We are concerned about potential increases in cardiovascular disease, premature death, and lung cancer. Our state regulator, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, is requiring less than 10 percent of the 140 frac sand operations in the state to monitor their emissions, and even then not requiring monitoring of the particulates of most concern, including silica.”
Frac sand industry advocates dismiss the allegation. In one example, eight months’ worth of air monitoring data in downtown Winona, Minn., showed silica sand was, for the most part, undetectable.