By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance
Frac sand mining is a growing threat to the agricultural landscapes of the upper Midwest and a health risk to those who live near the mines. With a general slowdown in the oil and gas industry, sand mining may seem a lessening concern in the universe of extraction impacts, but a recent visit to Wisconsin during Earth Week suggested otherwise.
Frac Sand Mining Presentations
I joined my colleague, Dr. Ted Auch, on an informative cross-state tour that started in Milwaukee. We were presenters at the Great Lakes Water Conservation Conference where representatives from breweries around the region and across the country came together to discuss their most precious commodity: clean and abundant water. Extraction affects both the quantity and quality of water – and our insights opened many eyes. Businesses like microbreweries with a focus on sustainability and a strong environmental ethic recognize the urgency and benefit of the renewable energy transformation.
From Milwaukee, we headed west to Madison and the University of Wisconsin where Caitlin Williamson of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology organized the first of two forums entitled “Sifting the Future: The Ecological, Agricultural, and Health Effects of Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin.” We were joined by Kimberlee Wright of Midwest Environmental Advocates to address an engaged audience of 35 people from the campus and greater community. Thanks to Wisconsin Eye, a public affairs network, the entire program was videotaped.
A long drive to Eau Claire revealed rolling farmland, wooded hills, and prodigious wetlands home to waterfowl and the largest cranberry industry in the nation. At the Plaza Hotel, we met Cheryl Miller of the Save the Hills Alliance, the grantor enabling us to study the regional footprint of sand mining, and Pat Popple, advocate extraordinaire and our host for the second “Sifting the Future” event. The good folks at Public Lab were also in town to facilitate citizen monitoring of silica dust from the mining process, including a free workshop and training that weekend.
The evening program attracted 50 people from as far away as Iowa and Minnesota. Their interest in and knowledge of sand mining issues was impressive, and many were heavily involved in fighting local mines. Dr. Crispin Pierce spoke of his research about airborne particulates around frac sand operations, complementing both FracTracker presentations – mine emphasizing the broad array of environmental and public health perils related to oil and gas extraction and Ted’s examining the scale and scope of sand mining, demand for proppant, and the toll of the industry on agricultural productivity, forests and the carbon cycle.
During the five day trip, sand mines were visited and documented, their incongruent and expanding presence marring the countryside. Some of them can be seen in this photo gallery:
On Earth Day, while driving east to return to Milwaukee, Sandhill cranes, a timeless symbol of the Wisconsin wild, poked the rich prairie soils searching for food. Joined by Autumn Sabo, a botanist and researcher who assisted our Wisconsin work, we detoured to the nearby Aldo Leopold Center visiting the simple shack that inspired Mr. Leopold to write Sand County Almanac. Considering the reason for my travel, the irony was thick. Ecological consciousness has come a long way, but more evangelism is sorely needed.