On Monday, I interviewed people protesting against frac sand outside a conference about the sand industry in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The next day, I attended the conference and talked with industry experts about their work and why people were so upset about it. (You can read my article about the conference protest here.)
Talking with the protesters outside the conference, I found that they had a lot of concerns about the new industrial sand mines proposed across the region, ranging from increased traffic in their rural communities to health concerns about the the risks of inhaling silica dust. Some people spoke out against specific mine plans proposed in their communities, others spoke more broadly about protecting the earth from the evils of the destruction created by our fossil fuel dependence.
Talking with industry professionals inside the conference, I found many people frustrated by the term “frac sand” and what they saw as the protesters confusing the risks of fracking with the risks of sand mining. Over and over again, people reminded me that industrial sand mining is not new to Wisconsin. No one minded when they were producing sand for the glass industry or foundries or water filtration. Yes, the sudden growth in the industry is because of the increased demand for sand by the oil and gas industry, but the sand production process is exactly the same. Several people told me stories about concerned citizens coming to public permit hearing to protest against “fracking in Wisconsin!”
To be clear, there is no fracking in Wisconsin. We have no oil or natural gas. We do have really high quality sand that the fracking industry wants to buy. But as I’ve covered the sand boom story for the past few months, I think that the sand industry folks have a point — fears about hydraulic fracturing are feeding fears about frac sand as well.
Personally, I think that the process of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas raises a lot of concerns (I haven’t researched it as thoroughly as I have the sand mining though). There’s a lot of chemicals and a lot of uncertainty, about risks to groundwater, earthquakes, and the communities who live above the deep, horizontally drilled wells. The entire process uses tons of clean water, a limited resource which we should be valuing in its own right. The technology they use to seal the wells and protect the groundwater does work, but just like we saw with the BP oil spill, technological safeguards can, and do fail. Natural gas contamination has been found in some people’s wells.
Sand mine protesters are certainly right that the most new mines popping up across the upper midwest will support the fracking industry. The sand acts as a proppant, holding open the cracks in the wells so that the oil or gas can flow up and out. But fighting the sand production won’t stop the fracking, there are all kinds of alternative, manufactured proppants that can and do take the place of sand, depending on the specific well requirements. One conference attendee even pointed out the Wisconsin sand should be considered the “Made In America” proppant, compared to the manufactured proppants the oil and gas industry imports from Japan.
Sand mining is not going to go away either- we need steel and glass and water filtration. In fact, from an environmental perspective, glass is an appealing alternative to plastics. Case in point, the glass industry recently started an ad campaign touting glass as green (video), which was played at this conference to remind us that sand is not just for fracking.
I’m not trying to take the sand industry side here- a few companies have certainly made mistakes trying to bully or bribe their way through the permitting process. A few companies have been cited by the DNR for making mistakes, but other companies take environmental stewardship seriously. I definitely support the protesters’ rights to ask questions and demand answers. If the commmuity agrees that they don’t want an industrial mine in their rural neighborhood, than the mining companies should look for another location. Unfortunately, local government consensus is easier said then done.
As a journalist, covering the sand mining story is interesting because their are so many angles, local political drama, statewide industry growth, economics, environmental concerns, and health concerns. As an environmentalist, it’s interesting to try and suss out which concerns are legitimate risks. Sand mining does have legitimate concerns, but it seems to me that too often fears of the fracking itself are spilling into the sand debate, making it harder to communities to evaluate the real risks and ask the right questions of a company proposing a mine. I hope, as I continue to write about this topic, I can clarify some of these concerns and misconceptions.