An Exploration of Sand Mining Impacts: Lasalle County, IL by way of Chicago’s South Side
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator
When it comes to high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), frac sand mining may be the most neglected aspect of the industry’s footprint. (HVHF demand on a per-well basis is increasing by 8% per year.)
To capture how this industry is changing several sand mining communities, I recently took a road trip to visit, photograph, and listen to the residents of this country’s primary frac sand areas. In total, I visited 7 sand mining communities in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
This multimedia perspective is part of our ongoing effort to map and quantify the effects of silica sand mining on people, agriculture, wildlife, ecosystem services, and watersheds more broadly. Below is my attempt to give the FracTracker community a sense of what residents are hearing, seeing, and saying about the silica sand mining industry writ large.
Chicago’s South Side
Before heading to Illinois’ frac sand epicenter of Lasalle County, I couldn’t help but catch the South Shore Line out of Millennium Station. This station can be seen as you head south to the Hegewisch neighborhood on Chicago’s impoverished South Side, an area of greater Chicago-Gary, Indiana that has largely been forgotten by politicians in both states.
This situation is a shame because collectively Hegewisch and the city of Whiting, IN are home to one of the largest – and getting larger – collections of oil refineries and oil sands infrastructure in the United States.
For an estimation of how difficult it is to live in various Chicago neighborhoods, see Figure 1, left.
This proliferation has not been without its dangers, including a compressor station explosion at BP PLC’s massive1 Whiting Refinery in August 2014. Unfortunately, that incident was just the latest in a long line of mishaps at this facility. The “operational incident,” as BP called it, rocked already stressed neighborhoods like MarkTown, IN – the aborted company town planned for steel maker Clayton Mark. MarkTown is on the National Register of Historic Places and is an example of a community that is being erased from the face of the earth in the name of Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex expansion. For those interested in architecture preservation, MarkTown’s rapid erasure is being conducted by BP itself and in the process we are losing an example of Conservatively Radical architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s distinct English-style Tudor homes and urban planning. Residents speculate BP “may be buying up the properties because of concerns about liability.” The company counters they are just trying to create additional green space for residents.
Luckily for everyone, operations following the aforementioned recent explosion were only “minimally impacted as a result of the incident and the refinery continue[d] to produce products for customers.” However, the more chronic concern is the tight supply-demand relationship between BP’s refinery and their Koch KCBX neighbor. Koch has made repeated headlines – and many neighbors turned enemies including the Southeast Environmental Task Force and its fearless leader Peggy Salazar – with its handling of the refinery’s annual production of 600,000 tons of petcoke a development Chicago Magazine called Mountains of Trouble. Petcoke is a byproduct of the refinery’s increased acceptance and processing of tar sands from Alberta Canada. Levels of production are likely to increase given BP’s completion in November 2014 of a “$4-billion revamp…to boost its intake of Canadian crude oil from 85,000 bpd to 350,000 bpd.”
Given how interconnected the hydrocarbon industry is, I thought it would be worth collecting some photos of the aforementioned infrastructure. When I saw that Koch KCBX’s terminal was also storing large amounts of silica sand, however, the connection between my next target(s) in LaSalle County was made even more obvious.
LaSalle vs. Chicagoland: A Tale of Two Worlds
Lasalle County, Illinois is situated approximately 50-60 miles south-southwest of Chicago. When you try to compare demographics and commerce, however, it is worlds away.
Chicagoland encompasses nearly 10,900 square miles – 9.5 times the area of Lasalle County. While Chicago’s population is expanding by 95,681 people per year, LaSalle’s is shrinking by 2,734 per year (Table 1). Chicagoans, though not South Siders, are making more than two times that of LaSalle County residents (with the latter actually falling nearly $4,700 below the state average). Predictably the demographics of Chicago reflect more and more those of the US, while LaSalle is typical of rural America with a population that is 93% white and only 3.3% foreign born. Thirty-five percent of Chicagoans are likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree, while only 16% of LaSalle County residents are likely to do so. Rates of poverty and more specifically child poverty, on the other hand, are significantly higher in Chicago. Finally, LaSalle is one of the country’s preeminent farming counties; it ranks #4 in the state and #126 nationally thanks to the value of agricultural commodities produced amounting to $448.5 million net of farm subsidies. See Table 1.
Photos from the Tour
The above contrast was made crystal clear as I traveled down Interstate 80 westbound towards exit 90 and LaSalle’s County seat Ottawa (pop. 18,562). Upon arriving in Ottawa I drove west on Madison Street to the first target of our expedition: U.S. Silica Company’s mine and processing facility at the corner of Madison Boyce Memorial Drive. Upon arriving, however, it became clear that I would not find a suitable location to photograph the company’s mine; the perimeter had been fenced off and mounded up to the tune of 10-15 feet. So I got back in our rental car and drove to the mine’s southern perimeter adjacent to the Bear Den Bar and Grill and the Vine St.-Fern St.-15th Ave. neighborhood where there was clear line of site. It was here that I got some of the best photos of the mine’s scale and scope with respect to land-use, reclamation, and hydrology.
Below is a sample of some of those images as well as several I took further down Route 34 between U.S. Silica’s active mine and a “reclaimed” Ottawa Silica Co. mine on the banks of the Illinois River.
After snapping several hundred shots of these two mines I headed to the I & M Canal State Trail between Utica and Ottawa emanating out of Buffalo Rock State Park and hiked east towards the Northern edge of U.S. Silica’s mine alongside a CSX railroad and recently constructed spur feeding into the mine’s loading terminal. The hope was that I would get a closer look at the mine but it turned out the angle was different but not better.
From the back of U.S. Silica’s Ottawa mine I traveled approximately 7 miles west to Unimin’s North Utica mine and a short dirt road off of 2803rd Road on the northern edge of the mine.
It was here that I photographed the mine’s reclamation plots, active mine pits, and developing water transport mechanisms. However, more importantly it was from here that I noticed off in the distance a bright red silica sand grain-size separator.
Curiously I did not – but do now – have this nascent and relatively small mine posted on our Frac Sands Mines and Related Facilities map at the time. Upon arriving at this site I found that the mine was owned and operated by a company called Northern White Sand a small mom & pop operation out of Utica, IL.
The photos I took of this mine were primarily from atop a vegetated berm to the southwest of the mine’s primary footprint. This vantage point allowed us to get some great shots of the types of infrastructure/equipment typical of this sized mine including the aforementioned modular grain-size separator, conveyor belts, retention ponds, and the pyramid-like piles of powdery white silica sand so desired by the HVHF industry.
Our final stop on the LaSalle County silica sand mine tour landed us in Troy Grove 13 miles north of North Utica by way of Interstate 39. It was here that I visited several vantage points around Technisand’s MBI Manley Bros. silica mine. The expanse included the site’s mixture of old and new processing infrastructure, what appeared to be an alluvial fan derived from sand waste and associated wetland, and the mine’s far reaches alongside a Chicago and North Western Transportation Company (CNW) railroad.
So now that I have outlined my tour of La Salle County I thought it would be helpful to share some of the stories residents told me during my travels and later by way of email.
Anna Mattes – La Salle County, IL
I live in LaSalle County, Illinois where I have prime farmland and Starved Rock State Park… the crown jewel of Illinois. I already have a fine farming industry and plenty of tourism as Starved Rock is visited by two million people annually. LaSalle County already has forty two quarries, gravel pits and sand mines. If I allow anymore the county will look as though it has been bombed. Empty sand pits will never produce food ever again. No amount of reclamation will restore this land to be productive…Each mine uses one million gallons of water daily. The LaSalle County Board has enlisted the USGS to do a hydrology study to determine how much water I have in our aquifer for municipalities and farming. Presently I have a moratorium in place on sand mines thru July 2016 and I hope forever. As a woman, wife and mother I am charged with the continuity of life. It is my job, profession, to raise healthy children, make a healthy breakfast and pack a nutritious lunch for my husband so he can do his job, and it generally falls to women to care for the elderly in families. With out clean air, pure water, healthy food what is the quality of life? Fracking is a dangerous business and I need to take better care of Planet Earth. Please do your part, I’m a Master Gardener and I’m doing my part.
Thomas Skomski – Wedron, IL
I am a resident of Wedron who has been severely impacted by Wedron Silica; and I want to report that there are many more problems associated with the influx of sand mines in LaSalle Co. than named in your recent article. In order to be fair to other residents who will be negatively affected by proximity to any sand mine I believe it is important to inform them and all concerned on the unmentioned problems associated with living near a sand mine. For example: the mountains of sand that are produced migrate everywhere the wind takes the particles. As I all know the winds are frequently fierce in this part of the country. One neighbor describes how in the morning when he sets his coffee cup down on his front porch and goes into his house to get the newspaper that he returns to find a layer of white sand covering his coffee. Another neighbor vacuums the sand off her living room rugs weekly while her husband regularly has to clean out sand-filled gutters. I do know that enabling pollutants on private property is technically criminal trespass. At the last EPA hearing in Wedron a retired mine employee admitted that Wedron Silica uses 100 million gallons of water per hour in sand processing. Some of this water is recycled. Since I have not confirmed those statistics, I prefer sticking to the fact that the mine has reversed the flow of the ground water. Who knows what the unseen consequences of that reversal might be? The toxic plume that Wedron Silica is in part responsible for creating migrates wherever the ground water moves. As a result of the threat of my well being poisoned my land, 23 acres has been devalued by the county to $1.00. All my five buildings are worth 40% of what they were before nine wells were poisoned in Wedron. Those wells were so toxic with benzene that water came out of the faucet orange and you could not breath it let alone use it to wash anything. Wedron Silica has begun buying homes in Wedron which will allow them to pursue their wealth with no concerns- BUT what about the water which I all know is in limited supply and susceptible to being polluted? So in summary, please include the human costs involved in a mine opening near you. My wife and I moved to the country to enjoy the solitude and quiet of living on a farm in our retirement years. The quality of our lives has been diminished, in addition the noise is disturbing; trains come in at all hours incessantly blowing their horns and the semi traffic is constant. Finally, I have heard a lot of what I consider negative criticism about the EPA. Having experienced this monumental problem directly it is perfectly clear to me that without the resources of a pro-environment organization I would be hard pressed to stand up to a corporation with multi billions in assets.
Ashley Williams – LaSalle County, IL
The nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has quickly transformed into a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, IL. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate, endangering the health and safety of the people and local environment. Our precious life vessels: our air, water, and soil are under siege by a nexus of power that seeks to intimidate us into quiet submission, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit by and let that happen.
- This facility alone processes nearly 2% of all oil in North America on a daily basis. This facility is the seventh-largest refinery in the United States and the largest outside of the Gulf Coast.