A new draft report from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) suggests that frac sand mining does not produce fine sand that is a health hazard. The report states that air quality measurements made in the western part of Wisconsin, where the majority of sand mining facilities are placed, have not detected elevated levels of silica in the air.
That report corroborates a study – conducted by the nonprofit Institute for Wisconsin's Health, which spent a year and $100,000 gathering research done by industry, the Department of Natural Resources and local governments – that concluded frac sand mining isn’t likely to cause health problems due to silica dust inhalation or groundwater contamination
However, Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said the data used in the WDNR report cannot be trusted because it was given to the WDNR by the industry itself.
"It's just a perfect example of flawed data that's been supplied by the industry and is now under a lot of criticism and scrutiny," she told Wisconsin Public Radio. "There's all these ways in which the WDNR just has to rely on the industry, and the industry has really figured out how to get its fingers into every part of the process."
According to the frac sand industry, the data is unbiased and reliable. Industry advocates say that there is no more of a health impact than exists when farmers plow their fields.
Schumann and others also have long-range concerns about the frac sand industry pouring money into the geology department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. University officials have praised the industry for its heavy investment in the department, which this year includes 18 paid internships in the frac sand industry with combined salaries of more than $140,000. But Schumann isn't a fan.
"We want people in their education to be getting a good, unbiased look at the industry," she said, "and when it's funded completely by the industry it's easy to imagine they're not getting the most unbiased look at things when they're getting it through internships that are funded by the industry."
According to the university, the internships give the students valuable first-hand real-world experience, but Schumann said the real goal of the industry is to ingratiate itself with students who may go on to work for regulatory agencies such as the DNR, in hopes they'll look the other way when frac sand companies pollute Wisconsin's air, land and water.
Schumann had no complaints about the university when last year a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor published a study investigating air quality near frac sand mines. That study suggested there are higher levels of harmful, microscopic particles in the air near active mining sites.
Dr. Crispin Pierce placed air monitors used by the U.S. Army near four frac sand mines and processing plants for 24-hour periods to measure air particles 2.5 microns in size. That’s about 16 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
According to Pierce, there are more particles in the air near frac sand sites than in other parts of the state.
The Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association noted its concerns about the study, saying Pierce's report had a small sample size and did not measure for toxic silica dust. He said it should be viewed against an industry-sponsored study that measured hundreds of samples from many mines and found low levels of dust and silica particles.
Issac Orr, writing for the Heartland Institute, said Dr. Pierce’s study “is so poorly designed it has no value for furthering our understanding of the impact of frac sand facilities on air quality. In fact, it reflects poorly on the university.”