A New, Extensive Platform for Fracking Imagery

by Ted Auch, FracTracker Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and Rebecca Johnson, Communications & Administrative Specialist

FracTracker is pleased to release our improved multimedia platform of fracking imagery for your convenient use. You can easily view, download, and share photos and videos of oil, gas, and petrochemical impacts. We’ve made it easy for you to find what you need within over 1,600 photos, GIFs, and videos of the various aspects of fossil fuel industries and activities. All media are free to download and use for all visitors, and the collection will only expand as our work continues!

 

 

 

 “The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)

 

Ted Auch, FracTracker Great Lakes Program Coordinator:

It was nearly five years ago on a beautiful Wednesday morning that I met Paul Feezel, a concerned citizen of Carroll County, Ohio, and Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s David Beach at the Carroll County-Tolson Airport (40.5616667, -81.0780833). The occasion was a flight with pilot Mike Stich to see what the Fracking Boom had done to Carroll and neighboring counties.

The aspect of the industry that I came away from that flight most worried about was the hundreds of miles of pipelines we saw connecting well pad to well pad and meandering on downstream to processing facilities. These pipelines took such circuitous routes between pads that everyone in the plane was scratching their heads, wondering how such routes made any financial sense for the operators to get their raw product to market.

Ever since that flight, I have spent a significant chunk of my time at FracTracker mapping the extent of these so-called gas “gathering pipelines” across Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. I remain as flummoxed as I was on that day how such a hastily laid and poorly regulated network of pipelines makes sense. More recently, I have been wondering what the cumulative impact of these non-FERC-regulated pipelines has been on forests, wetlands, and the remaining agriculture in the region.

We have flown over this area several more times since that initial flight, with pilots volunteering their time to navigate planes provided by our excellent partners at LightHawk. As I wrote a little over two years ago:

“… you can’t really understand or appreciate the enormity, heterogeneity, and complexity of the unconventional oil and gas industry’s impact unless you look at the landscape from the cockpit of a Cessna 172. This vantage point allows you to see the grandeur and nuance of all things beautiful and humbling. Conversely, and unfortunately more to the point of what I’ve seen in the last year, a Cessna allows one to really absorb the extent, degree, and intensity of all things destructive. I’ve had the opportunity to hop on board the planes of some amazing pilots, like Dave Warner, a forester formerly of Shanks, West Virginia … Tim Jacobson, Esq., out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, northern Illinois retired commodity and tree farmer Doug Harford, and Target corporate jet pilot Fred Muskol, out of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.”

Frac sand mine impoundment pond in Wedron, IL, 2018. Photo by Ted Auch.

Frac sand mine impoundment pond in Wedron, IL, 2018. Photo by Ted Auch, with aerial assistance from Lighthawk.

I wrote the “Bird’s-Eye-View” piece in August 2018, and since then we’ve made additional flights with our LightHawk partners, including a harrowing flight over Pine Creek State Park in Pennsylvania last May, part of our “Wilderness Lost” digital atlas series that now includes a similar project for the adjoining Loyalsock Creek.

The May 2019 flight was exhilarating to say the least – and thanks to the skills of our pilot Steve Kent, we executed the flight and extracted some powerful imagery that was three months later appended during better flying conditions with pilot Bob Keller. This flight was notable because the cloud ceiling was around 2,400 feet, and some peaks we were flying over and around were in excess of 1,200 feet, which gave us very little room to maneuver, at times forcing us to fly down into valleys to avoid the clouds. This flight also was a great opportunity for me and Steve to practice our communication, given that we were flying so low and slow, which meant that Steve would basically give me a ten-second slot to open my window, lean out, and shoot, while he was banking around the site of interest. Unlike other flights – including the subsequent flight in the Pine Creek – we did not have any opportunities to fly around infrastructure more than once, given how volatile the cloud ceiling was, and that if there was an opening that would allow us to move laterally, we had to take it.

Between our Pine Creek flights and that initial Carroll County aerial tour, we’ve compiled literally thousands of high-quality and illustrative images of the Hydraulic Fracturing Industrial Complex. When we say “hydraulic fracturing” – or “fracking” – we are not simply referring to drill rigs and frack pads, like the industry would limit us to in our analysis, but rather all manner of activities and infrastructure, to include drill rigs and pads – but also pipelines, waste disposal sites, processing plants, and frac sand mining activities, from the aforementioned forests of northeastern Pennsylvania, to Texas’ Gulf Coast. To this point, several authors have used our imagery, such as Paul Bogard and Tom Pearson, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Yale Environment 360, Oil Change International, the Anthropology Magazine SAPIENS, etc.

Since COVID-19 brought everything to a halt, my colleague Rebecca Johnson and I have been working to organize these images, migrating our older and more cumbersome inventory to the image and video hosting website Flickr, where we could more appropriately catalog, group, and map these images.

Please make use of this resource and keep fighting for a more just energy future.

 

Steel plants in Detroit, MI. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from Lighthawk.

 

Rebecca Johnson, Communications & Administrative Specialist

I began working with FracTracker in May 2019, coming in with a new and relatively limited perspective on the energy landscape, compared to Ted’s, my partner in this undertaking, who has spent years – from the ground and from above – capturing this expansion, its degradation, and the challenges it presents. After seeing the collection of Ted’s and others’ pictures on our website, I knew we needed to amplify our efforts in graphic documentation, in order for more people to see and feel what we are collectively up against.

This task was not taken lightly. FracTracker’s imagery backlog was daunting, to say the least. I scrolled through countless pictures and videos of different aspects of fossil fuel infrastructure and activity until my eyes glazed over. I had no idea the extent of the industry landscape and its effects – and so I had no idea where to even begin. The collection was immense, but the need to get more eyes on these revealing depictions was even bigger.

How was best to expose and illuminate the extensive buildout of and degradation from these resource-intensive, extractive industries?

Cataloguing began with the frac sand industry, and I slowly pieced together the breadth and depth of resource extraction. The aerial snapshots and panoramic captures of enormous mines, immense sand piles, and vast, sandy, slurry ponds connected by looming conveyors and miles of train tracks created a twisting path through my mind, traversing the various stages of extraction to production, through landscapes wrought with reckless human consumption. But frac sand is only one starting point in the onslaught, is only an upstream activity that sets the stage for further ruin downstream, with oil and gas extraction, petrochemical and plastic production, and various types of pollution and erroneous waste disposal from all these activities – not to mention the waste and pollution following human consumption, when we think we are “done” with a material.

As I sifted through images, the dots started connecting, and what started as a simple list of subjects quickly became an outline of what our country’s communities and environment were up against. Navigating through the picture hoard, Ted and I regularly discussed the people he had met while capturing these shots.

He spoke of friends he has made along the way – people in communities that had endured this buildout, seeing their lands chipped away, their natural corridors disconnected, and their waterways depleted or entirely consumed to make room for more industrial sites. It had compelled some of them to leave their homes, and some were even forced to abandon their sacred lands, left only with the lasting, heartbreaking memory of seeing it sullied beyond recognition and repair.

 

Detroit residents stand in front of a Marathon Oil refinery in southwest Detroit, MI, 2020. Photo by Ted Auch.

Detroit residents Doug Wood and Theresa Landrum stand in front of a Marathon Oil refinery in southwest Detroit, MI, 2020. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

 

This realization lead to our stepwise sorting of imagery by these industries and activities to include the impacts and hazards to communities, culture, and livelihoods, already endured, happening currently, and looming ominously in the future. It’s easy to see the negative alterations from a bird’s-eye view, with the tainted landscape laid out below, punctured by ugly facilities and marred by indiscriminate ruin. It is another, more emotional thing to connect these scenes to those living in them, to the livelihoods dissolved and the generational homes displaced. Farmers have seen their lands infringed upon, their soils tainted and their waters poisoned. Communities have witnessed their air quality deteriorate, their children and friends fall sick, and their neighborhoods empty, at the expense of these industries. An often-overlooked aspect of extraction is those who bear its initial ramifications in their own communities.

At this point, we’ve winnowed our vast trove of imagery down to over 1,600 images across 46 albums. After weeding through this extensive catalog to identify our most powerful snapshots, we thought it would be appropriate to present the first iteration of this over five-month project to our audience and collaborators, with the hopes of better informing/illustrating your work.

With our migration to Flickr, I hope more eyes find this imagery, explore our collections, and follow the connections from album to album, to better understand the effects of fossil fuel activities. Whether it is the withered landscapes, the depleted environments, or the fragmented lives that speak to the viewer most, it is important to remember what has been endured to procure these resources, and what it will take to move to a cleaner, more just energy landscape.

In the event some of you were not aware of certain aspects of the industry, please take this opportunity to tour these albums and familiarize yourself with the myriad infrastructure and impacts of fracking.

Navigate to the Collections page to see FracTracker’s imagery convey a story through the albums grouped there – such as exploring the buildout through the Infrastructure & Transportation Collection, or the Plastics & Petrochemicals Collection. Visit the Albums page to see snapshots sorted by specific types of facilities, like Frac Sand Mining and Pipelines, or by specific projects, like Endless Effects: the Loyalsock Creek Watershed Project. Once you click on a photo, you can view its location on a map.

 

 

A primary source of inspiration for this aerial photography endeavor is the late Bill Hughes out of Wetzel County, West Virginia, who left us in March 2019. Bill was a force of nature in West Virginia’s documentation, with his camera and local know-how, the fracking industry’s negligence, and the fact that they seemed to run roughshod over his beloved state’s beautiful landscape. As our Executive Director Brook Lenker wrote following Bill’s death:

“Just taking pictures was not enough. Context was needed. Bill interpreted each picture – explaining the location, thing or activity, and significance of every image. Did it represent a threat to our water, air, or land? When did it happen? What happened before and after? Did it show a short- or long-term problem? Should state regulatory agencies see it to become better informed? Dissemination followed in many forms: tours of the gas fields; power point presentations to groups in five states; op-ed pieces written for news media; countless responses to questions and inquiries; even blogs and photo essays for various websites. Ceaseless Bill never stopped caring. Maybe Bill Hughes should be an official emblem for Earth Day – a humble, faithful man of modest proportions, spreading the stewardship imperative from a little electric car. Hitch a ride, follow his lead, and, like Bill, always tell it like it is.”

We hope that our work in the air and on the ground photographing industry impacts would make Bill proud. We will continuously update these Flickr albums, and offer as much background and locational data as possible to facilitate an unsurpassed level of depth and breadth for all users.

 

Additional Readings:

Lenker, B. “An Earth Day Tribute to Bill Hughes”, April 22nd, 2019, https://www.fractracker.org/2019/04/earth-day-tribute-bill-hughes/

Auch, T. “Documenting Fracking Impacts: A Yearlong Tour from a Bird’s-Eye-View”, August 8th, 2018, https://www.fractracker.org/2018/08/birds-eye-view-fracking/

FracTracker and Earthworks “Endless Effects: A Digital Atlas Exploring the Environmental Impacts of a Decade of Unconventional Natural Gas Extraction in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed”, August, 2020, https://www.fractracker.org/projects/the-loyalsock-watershed-project/

FracTracker and Earthworks “Wildness Lost: A Digital Atlas Examining Over a Decade of Unconventional Natural Gas Development in Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Watershed”, August, 2019, https://www.fractracker.org/projects/wildness-lost-pine-creek/

Auch, T. “Fracking Threatens Ohio’s Captina Creek Watershed”, December, 2109, https://www.fractracker.org/2019/12/fracking-in-captina-creek-watershed-story-map/

 

Feature photo of a Toledo Refining Company refinery in Toledo, OH, July, 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

 

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Documenting Fracking Impacts: A Yearlong Tour from a Bird’s-Eye-View

“The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)

I always tell people that you can’t really understand or appreciate the enormity, heterogeneity, and complexity of the unconventional oil and gas industry’s impact unless you look at the landscape from the cockpit of a Cessna 172. This bird’s-eye-view allows you to see the grandeur and nuance of all things beautiful and humbling. Conversely, and unfortunately more to the point of what I’ve seen in the last year, a Cessna allows one to really absorb the extent, degree, and intensity of all things destructive.

I’ve had the opportunity to hop on board the planes of some amazing pilots like Dave Warner, a forester formerly of Shanks, West Virginia (Note: More on our harrowing West Virginia flight with Dave later!!), Tim Jacobson Esq. out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, northern Illinois retired commodity and tree farmer Doug Harford, and Target corporate jet pilot Fred Muskol out of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

Since joining FracTracker I’ve been fortunate to have completed nearly a dozen of these “morning flights” as I like to call them, and five of those have taken place since August 2017. I’m going to take the next few paragraphs to share what I’ve found in my own words and by way of some of the photos I think really capture how hydraulic fracturing, and all of its tentacles, has impacted the landscape.

The following is by no means an empirical illustration. I’m increasingly aware, however, that often times tables, charts, and graphs fail to capture much of the scale and scope of fossil fuel’s impact. Photos, if properly georeferenced and curated, are as robust a source of data as a spreadsheet or shapefile, both of which are the traditional coins of the realm here at FracTracker.

West Central Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines

August 2, 2017

Figure 1. Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota silica sand mines, processing facilities, and related operations

It was nearly a year ago today that I met Bloomer, Wisconsin dairy farmer Ken Schmitt at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (KEAU) and soon thereafter jumped into Tim Jacobson’s Cessna 172 to get a bird’s-eye-view of the region’s many frac sand mines and their impacts (Figure 1). These sites are spread out over a 12-county region known as West Central Wisconsin (WCW). Ken hadn’t been up to see these mines since October of 2016 and was eager to see how they had “progressed,” knowing what he did about their impact on his neck of the woods in northern Chippewa County.

Ken is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and – befitting a dairy farmer – he is also one of the most conservative and analytical folks I’ve ever met. However, that morning it was clear that his patience with county administrators and the frac sand mining industry had long since run out. He was tired of broken promises, their clear and ubiquitous bullying tactics, and a general sense that his livelihood and the farm he was hoping to leave his kids were at risk due to sand mining’s complete capture of WCW’s residents and administrators.

Meanwhile Mr. Jacobson Esq. was intimately familiar with some of the legal tools residents were using to fight the spread of sand mining in the WCW. This is something he referred to as “anticipatory nuisance” lawsuits, which he and his colleagues were pursuing on behalf of several landowners against OmniTrax’s (f/k/a Terracor) “sand mine, wet and dry processing, a conveyor system to a rail load out with manifest yard” proposal in Jackson County, Wisconsin. I, too, have worked with Tim to inform some of his legal work with respect to the nuisance stories and incidents I’ve documented in my travels, as well as research into the effects of sand mining across Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Explore details from our sand mining tour by clicking on the images below:

Our flight lasted nearly 2.5 hours and stretched out over 4,522 square miles. It included nearly 20 sand mines – and related infrastructure – in the counties of Jackson, Wood, Clark, Eau Claire, Monroe, Trempealeau, and Buffalo. What we saw was a sizeable expansion of the mining complex in the region since the last time I flew the area – nearly four years earlier on October 8, 2013. The number and size of mines that had popped up since that trip were far greater than any of us had expected.

This expansion paralleled the relative – and total –increase in demand for “proppant” from the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) all across the country (Figure 2).

Figure 1. A map of the likely destination for Wisconsin’s frac sand mines silica sand based on an analysis of Superior Silica Sand’s 2015 SEC 10Ks.

Figure 2. A map of the likely destination for Wisconsin’s frac sand mines silica sand based on an analysis of Superior Silica Sand’s 2015 SEC 10Ks.

West Virginia Panhandle & Southeastern Ohio

January 26, 2018

On the morning of January 26th, I woke up on the west side of Cleveland thinking there was very little chance we were going to get up in the air for our flight with SouthWings’ pilot Dave Warner due to inclement weather. There was a part of me that was optimistic, however, so I decided to make the three hour drive down to the Marshall County Airport (KMPG) in Moundsville, West Virginia from Cleveland in the hopes that the “cold rain and snow” we’d been receiving was purely lake effect stuff and the West Virginia panhandle had not been in the path of the same cold front.

Marshall County, West Virginia Airport (KMPG) staff clearing the runway for our flight with SouthWings pilot Dave Warner, 1/26/2018

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Moundsville airport I was wrong, and the runway was pretty slick around 8:00 a.m. However, the airport’s staff worked diligently to de-ice and plow the runway and by the time Dave Warner arrived from southern West Virginia conditions were ideal. The goal of this flight was two-fold:

  1. Photograph some of the large-scale high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) infrastructure in the West Virginia counties of Doddridge, Wetzel, and Marshall owned and operated by MarkWest, and
  2. Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant was doing a story on natural gas gathering pipeline’s impact on waterways, and more specifically the Hellbender Salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). She was looking to see the impacted landscape from the air.

Both of these goals were achieved efficiently and safely, with the resulting Allegheny Front piece receiving significant interest across multiple public radio and television platforms including PRI’s Living On Earth.

Explore details from our WV / OH tour by clicking on the images below:

On my return drive home that afternoon the one new thing that really resonated with me was the fact that hydraulic fracturing or fracking has come to be defined by 4-5 acre well pads across Appalachian, Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. This is a myth, however, expertly perpetuated by the oil and gas industry and their talking shops. Fracking’s extreme volatility and quick declines in rates of return necessitate that this latest fossil fuel iteration install large pieces of infrastructure like compressor stations and cracking facilities. This all is to ensure timely movement of product from supply to demand and to optimize the “value added” products the global markets demand and plastics industry uses as their primary feedstocks. This large infrastructure was never mentioned at the outset of the shale revolution, and I would imagine if it had been there would be far more resistance.

The one old thing the trip reinforced was the omnipresence and sinuosity of natural gas gathering lines across extremely steep and forested Appalachian geographies. How these pipelines will hold up and what their hasty construction is doing to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, not to mention humanity, is anyone’s guess; the data is just so darn bad.

Southeastern Ohio

March 5, 2018 – aka, The XTO Powhatan Point Well Pad Explosion Flight

FAA’s Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) notification

Around 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, 2018, an explosion occurred at XTO’s Schnegg frack pad “as the company worked to frack a fourth well” in Powhatan Point, Belmont County, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8.

We were antsy to see what we could see, so we caught an emergency flight with Dave Warner, only this time under the LightHawk umbrella. We left on the morning of March 5th out of the all too familiar[1] Carroll County-Tolson Airport (KTSO). Although we couldn’t get close to the site, there was a holler valley to the northwest of the pad that allowed us to capture a photo of the ongoing releases. Additionally, within several weeks we obtained by FOIA the raw Ohio State Trooper monitoring footage from their helicopter and posted this footage to our YouTube channel, where it has received 4,787 views since March 19, 2018. This type of web traffic is atypical for anything that doesn’t include kittens, the Kardashians, or the Kardashians’ kittens.

Explore details from our Southeastern Ohio tour by clicking on the images below:

Much like our flight in January the most salient points I got out of Dave’s plane thinking about were:

  • Astonishment regarding the number of gas gathering lines and the fact that they seem to have been installed with very little-to-no reclamation forethought. They are also installed during a time of year when – even if hydroseed is applied – it won’t grow, leaving plenty of chances for predictable spring rains to cause major problems for streams and creeks, and
  • Amazement over the growing inventory of large processing infrastructure required by the HVHF industry. This insfrastructure includes the large Mark West and Blue Racer Midstream processing plants in Cadiz and Lewisville, Ohio, respectively, as well as Texas-based Momentum Midstream’s natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio along the Carroll and Harrison County borders. That complex is affectionately referred to by the company’s own spokesman as The Beast because of its sheer size.

It is a big plant, a very big plant and far bigger than other plants around here… What’s really amazing that we got it up and running in six months. No one believed that we could do that. – Momentum Midstream spokesman Eric Mize discussing their natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio, Ohio.

LaSalle County, Illinois

May 24 & 26, 2018

 Frac Sand Mines and The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Buffalo Herd, Franklin Grove, Illinois

It was during the week of June 20, 2016 that I first visited the frac sand mine capital of the United States: LaSalle County, Illinois. Here is the land of giant silica sand mines owned by even larger multinationals like U.S. Silica, Unimin, and Fairmount Santrol.

Fast forward to the week of May 21st of this year, and I was back in the frac sand capital to interview several folks that live near these mines or have been advocating for a more responsible industry. I conducted a “morning flight” with several journalists and county officials from neighboring Ottawa County.

LaSalle County is an extremely interesting case study for anyone even remotely interested in the food, energy, and water (FEW) conversation that has begun to receive significant attention in the age of the “Shale Revolution.” (Such focus is largely thanks to the extreme amounts of water required during the fracking process.) While LaSalle County has never experienced even a single HVHF permit, it is home to much of the prized silica or “proppant” the HVHF industry prizes. La Salle receives this recognition due to its location above one of the finest sources of silica sand: the St. Peter Sandstone formation. This situation has prompted a significant expansion in the permitting of new silica sand mines and expansion of existing mines throughout the county – from small townships like North Utica and Oglesby to Troy Grove 7 miles north on East 8th Road.

Meanwhile, LaSalle County is home to some of the most productive soils in the United States, due largely to the carbon sequestration capabilities of the tallgrass prairies that once dominated the region. In any given year, the county ranks in the top 5 nationally based on the amount of soybean and corn produced on a per-acre basis. According to an analysis of the most recent USDA agricultural census, total agricultural value in LaSalle County exceeds $175 million or seven times the national average by county of roughly $23 million.

Needless to say, the short-term extraction of silica sands in the name of “energy independence” stands to have a profound impact on long-term “food security” in the U.S. and worldwide. Sadly, this conflict is similar to the one facing the aforementioned West Central Wisconsin, home to similarly productive soils. The cows that feed on the forage those soils produce some of the highest quality dairy anywhere. (As an aside: both regions are facing the realities of their disproportionate support for Donald Trump and the effects his trade war will have on their economies.)

LaSalle County is also home to the 2,630-acre Starved Rock State Park along the south bank of the Illinois River. Much of the park’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) back in the early 1900s. Starved Rock is home to 18 canyons featuring:

… vertical walls of moss-covered stone formed by glacial meltwater that slice dramatically through tree-covered sandstone bluffs. More than 13 miles of trails allow access to waterfalls, fed season runoff or natural springs, sandstone overhangs, and spectacular overlooks. Lush vegetation supports abundant wildlife, while oak, cedar and pine grow on drier, sandy bluff tops. – IL DNR

Starved Rock receives more than 2.5 million visitors annually, which is the most of any Illinois state park. However, it is completely surrounded by existing or proposed frac sand mines, including US Silica’s Covel Creek mine. US Silica even recently pitched an expansion to the doorstep of Starved Rock and future plans to nearly engulf the park’s perimeter. What such an expansion would do to the attractiveness of the park and its trickle down economic impact is debatable, but LaSalle County residents Paul Wheeler and photographer Michelle McCray took a stab at illustrating the value of the state park to residents for our audience back in August, 2016:


Our flight with LightHawk pilot and neighboring Mazon, Illinois retired farmer Doug Harford lifted off from Illinois Valley Regional Airport (KVYS) at around 9:00 a.m. local time on the morning of May 24th. We had perfect conditions for taking photos, with no clouds and a comfortable 70-75°F for the duration of a two-hour flight. We covered nearly 200 square miles and ten existing, abandoned, or permitted frac sand mines.

Explore details from our Illinois tour by clicking on the images below:

All passengers were struck by how large these mines were and how much several of the mines had expanded since the last time we all flew over them in June of 2016. The mines that had experienced the greatest rates of expansion were US Silica’s LaSalle Voss mine along Interstate 80 and the aforementioned Illinois River mine along with Fairmount Mineral’s major expansion, both in terms of infrastructure and actual mine footprint, in Wedron along the Fox River.

Figure 2. A map of the LaSalle County frac sand mines and associated St. Peter sandstone formation along with the city of Chicago for some geographic perspective.

Figure 3. A map of the LaSalle County frac sand mines and associated St. Peter sandstone formation, along with the city of Chicago for some geographic perspective.

Most of this expansion is due to three critical distinguishing characteristics about the industry in LaSalle County:

  • The processing and export infrastructure (i.e., east-west rail) is in place and allows for mining to take place at times when other sand mining regions are mothballed,
  • Due to the large aggregation of parcels for farming purposes, companies can lease or outright purchase large amounts of land from relatively few landowners, and
  • Only the largest firms are active in the region, and with economies of scale they are not subject to the same types of shocks that smaller firms are when the price of oil collapses (like it did between June 2015 and February 2016). This means that the conflict will only be amplified in the coming months and years as the frac sand mining industry looks to supersede agriculture as LaSalle County’s primary economic driver.

However, all is not lost in North Central Illinois. This hope was stoked during our sojourn – and my subsequent trip in person – up to see The Nature Conservancy’s 3,600 acre preserve in Franklin Grove on the border of Lee and Ogle counties. As someone who is working hard to establish a small plot of prairie grasses and associated wildflowers at my home outside Cleveland, I was hoping to see what an established prairie looks like from the air. My primary goal, however, was to see what a healthy herd of native bison looks like.[2] The Nachusa bison are unique in that they came:

… from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and…Unlike most other American bison, animals from the Wind Cave herd have no history of cross-breeding with cattle. Bison from Wind Cave are the species’ most genetically pure and diverse specimens.

We were fortunate during our flight to have spotted the heard at the western edge of the preserve in what volunteer naturalist, Betty Higby, later told me the staff calls Oak Island. While I am not a person of faith, seeing these behemoths roaming freely and doing what 20-30 million of their ancestors used to do across much of North America moved me in a way I was not prepared for. I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of awe and humility. How was I going to explain this beast’s former ubiquity and current novelty to my 5-year-old son, who shares a love of the North American Bison with me and would most certainly ask me what happened to this majestic creature?

Medina & Stark counties, Ohio NEXUS Pipeline flight

June 25, 2018

Ohio is currently home to 2,840 fracking permits, with 2,370 of these laterals having been drilled since September 2010. The growing concern around the fracking and petrochemicals conversation across much of the Midwest is the increasing number of FERC-permitted natural gas pipeline “proposals”[3] the industry is demanding it needs to maximize potential. Most residents in the path of these pipelines have strong objections to such development, citing the fact that imminent domain should not be invoked for corporate gain.

Much like all of the other patterns and processes we’ve documented and/or photographed at FracTracker, we felt that a flight over the latest FERC-approved pipeline – The NEXUS pipeline – would give us a better understanding of how this critical piece of infrastructure has altered the landscapes of Medina and Stark counties. Given the population density of these two northeastern Ohio counties, we also wanted to document the pipeline’s pathway with respect to urban and suburban centers.

Our flight on June 25th was delayed due to low clouds and last minute changes to the flight plan, but once we took off from Wadsworth Municipal Airport (3G3) with a local flight instructor it was clear that NEXUS is a pipeline that navigates a sinuous path in cities and townships like Green, Medina, Rittman, and Seville – coming dangerously close to thousands of homes and farms, as well as many schools and medical facilities.

Explore details from our NEXUS Pipeline tour by clicking on the images below:

Will this be the last FERC-approved pipeline to transverse Ohio in the name of “energy independence”? Will this pipeline and its brethren with names like the Utopia and ET Rover be monitored in real-time? If not, why? It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we so flippantly assume these pipelines are innocuous given their proximity to so many Ohioans. And, as if to add insult to injury, imminent domain is invoked. All this for a piece of oil and gas infrastructure that will profit companies on the global market, with only a fraction of the revenue returning to affected communities.

What’s Next?

I don’t know of a better way to understand the magnitude of these pipelines than flying over them at 1,000-1,500 feet, and I will continue to monitor and photograph oil and gas developments from the air with the assistance of amazing pilots like those affiliated with LightHawk and SouthWings.

To this end, I will be returning to West Central Wisconsin for yet another “morning flight” with the aforementioned La Crosse-area pilot and lawyer Tim Jacobson and frequent collaborator University of Wisconsin-Stout professor Tom Pearson.[4] Our flight plan will return us to the northern Wisconsin frac sand counties of Chippewa, Barron, Dunn, Eau Claire, and if we have time we’ll revisit the mines we photographed in August of last year. We’ve been told by Susan Bence, an environmental reporter out of Milwaukee Public Radio, that she is trying to convince the powers that be at NPR in Washington, DC that this is a story the entire country should hear about. Wish us luck!


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

Bird’s-Eye-View Endnotes

  1. The first of my morning fracking flights was out of this airport back in June, 2012 along with the other passenger on this flight Paul Feezel of Carroll Concerned Citizens and David Beach of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Green City Blue Lakes program.
  2. The Conservancy initially brought at least 30 bison of different ages and genders to Nachusa. The bison graze on approximately 1,500 acres of the prairie and the site currently supports more than 120 bison according to site volunteer naturalist Betty Higby.
  3. I put quotes around this word because in my travels across Ohio interviewing those in the path of these transmission pipelines it is clear that this is not the correct word because ‘proposals’ implies that these pipelines might not happen or are up for debate. Yet, neither could be further from the truth with most folks indicating that it was very clear very early in their interactions with FERC and the pipeline companies that there was never a chance that these pipelines were not going to happen with “imminent domain for private gain” being the common thread throughout my conversations.
  4. Tom is the author of a recently published book on the topic “When the Hills Are Gone.”

Supporting Documentation

Superior Silica Sand, LLC, Lundequam Picknell site, Barron County WI

New frac sand mining photos and videos are now available via FracTracker

Surface mining to obtain sand that is perfectly sized for use in the hydraulic fracturing process has been increasing in recent years. Over the summer, FracTracker had the opportunity to document a number of sand mining activities occurring in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin that supply frac sand to the oil and gas industry. Explore a selection of this imagery below:

Explore these and other frac sand mining photos and videos in our online album. The most recent imagery can be found at the bottom of the album. Additional videos are also available on this YouTube channel.

View All Albums

All of these frac sand photos, and more, can also be found on our Energy Imagery page, organized by topic and also location.

If you have photos or videos that you would like to contribute to this growing collection of publicly available information, just email us at info@fractracker.org, along with where and when the imagery was taken, and by whom.

Photo by David Nix 2015

Documenting Oil and Gas Industry Damage in North Dakota

North Dakota is now in its third oil boom due to the drilling technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that have made once-inaccessible oil accessible. The Bakken formation covers western North Dakota, eastern Montana, and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. At the height of the boom in 2014, just under 12,000 wells were active across the west, extracting 1.1 million barrels (bbl) of oil per day and flaring at 32%. The boom has bumped North Dakota to the second largest oil and gas producing state, second only to Texas.

Dakota Resource Council (DRC) is a member-led, grassroots organization that has been working in extraction-impacted communities in North Dakota since 1978. DRC’s members work on oil and gas campaigns that aim to eliminate impacts to land, air, water, and livelihoods of the citizens of North Dakota. Campaign issues on oil and gas industry damage include: flaring, pipelines, radioactive/oilfield waste, state accountability, and oil-by-rail.

The following photos from DRC show impacts of current and legacy oil and gas extraction in western North Dakota – an area in the heart of the Bakken that is historically a rich agricultural and ranching region. The vast contrast between the two industries are not complementary.

Bear Den Bay Incident

Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is the epicenter of fracking in the Bakken. On July 8, 2014 a wastewater pipeline rupture was accidentally discovered in rural Mandaree on the reservation. The pipeline is owned by Crestwood Midstream, LLC – a Texas-based company.

An estimated 1 million gallons of toxic saltwater ran down a ravine, ending up in the tributary of Bear Den Bay, which is located ¼ mile from the city of Mandaree’s water intake. The spill was contained, but the state doesn’t know exactly how much waste went into the bay. Tribal administration released a statement that beaver dams prevented the fluids from reaching the lake.

Weeks after the incident Crestwood released a statement saying:

… while assessment of the effect is ongoing, examination and testing to date show that an area of grass, brush and trees about 200 yards long sustained damage. Some produced water ran down a ravine into natural pools in a small stream at the bottom, but it appears that the produced water stopped there… The impact on fish and wildlife appears to have been minimal, in fact beavers, turtles, frogs, deer and pelicans have been seen returning to and re-inhabiting the impacted area.

To date, there has been no penalty for the damage that has been done to the land and reclamation is ongoing. Below are photos documenting the incident’s effects:

The Legacy of North Dakota Oil Booms

Western North Dakota has weathered through two previous oil booms in the early 1950’s and 1980’s. Previous booms left behind infrastructure that sits abandoned today. Due to hydraulic fracking technology, once-inaccessible oil is now accessible. These pre-existing wells are called legacy wells, that produce roughly 5% of North Dakota’s 1.2 million barrels per day.

Much of these wells contain infrastructure that has been in place for over 60 years. Pipelines have not been mapped or regulated in North Dakota until recently. Farmers are finding underground tanks and pipelines filled with toxic sludge. Just like previous oil booms, North Dakota was not prepared for the cost of extraction. Scroll through the following gallery showing a variety of legacy sites in ND.


By Nicole Donaghy, Dakota Resource Council

Chieftain Sands - Chetek WI Mine North

Frac Sand Photos Available on FracTracker.org

With the advent of hydraulic fracturing to increase production of oil and gas from tight geologic formations, such as shale, the demand for fracking sand (frac sand, or frack sand) has increased drastically in recent years. What does this process look like, you might ask. To help you understand this subsidiary of the oil and gas industry, we’ve compiled all of our frac sand photos into three albums on the topic.

Frac Sand Mining Photo Album

This album contains all of the photos we have amassed of frac sand mining and transportation operations – both from the ground and the sky.


Flyover Tours

We have also been fortunate enough to receive two flyover tours of frac sand mining taking place in 2013 and 2016 by LightHawk.


View All Albums

All of these frac sand photos, and more, can also be found on our Energy Imagery page, organized by topic and also location.

If you have photos or videos that you would like to contribute to this growing collection of publicly available information, just email us at info@fractracker.org, along with where and when the imagery was taken, and by whom.

Earth week in WI Feature Image

Earth Week in Wisconsin

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

Dr. Auch presenting in Wisconsin on frac sand mining issues

Dr. Auch presenting in Wisconsin on frac sand mining issues

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.

Brook Lenker presenting at Sifting the Future event in Wisconsin

Brook Lenker presenting at Sifting the Future event in Wisconsin

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.

Mining Photos

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:

View all frac sand mining photos >

Other Sights

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.

Aldo Leopold Center, WI

Aldo Leopold Center, Wisconsin

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 2

Ludington State Park, Sargent Sand’s Mine, and US Silica and Sylvania Minerals
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 help fill this gap I decided to head out on the road to visit, photograph, and listen to the residents of this country’s primary frac sand communities. This multimedia perspective is part of our ongoing effort to map and quantify the effects of silica sand mining on communities, agriculture, wildlife, ecosystem services, and watersheds more broadly. Below is my follow up attempt to give The FracTracker Alliance community a sense of what residents are hearing, seeing, and saying about the silica sand mining industry writ large, through a tour of 7 sand mining communities – part 2. Read part 1.

Monroe County, MI

Monroe County, Michigan is approximately 22 miles south on I-75 from downtown Detroit with similar demographic differences to the Chicago-LaSalle County, IL comparison we made during the first part of this series. South Rockwood lies along the Northeastern edge of Monroe County and the Monroe-Wayne County border, and is consequently at the intersection of Detroit’s sprawl and rural Michigan.

Monroe County and nearly all of South Rockwood is underlain by one of the purest sandstone formations in North America. The Sylvanian Sandstone formation lies beneath 20% of Monroe County stretching from the aforementioned Wayne County border south-southwest to Lucas County, OH (Fig. 1). It is this formation that mining stalwarts such as US Silica and the appropriately named Sylvanian Minerals are mining for frac sands. Not only is the silica pure, but it is also extremely close to the surface. The region, conveniently, is situated at the crossroads of numerous rail lines capable of transporting the sand to shale plays in the east and North Dakota alike.

US Silica and Sylvanian Minerals are neighbors at the corner of Ready and Armstrong Roads in South Rockwood, with the former adjacent to I-75’s southbound lanes (Fig. 2). As of fall 2011, Sylvanian Minerals hadn’t even broken ground on its initial stab at mining frac sands. Presently the two firms have altered nearly 650 acres, or 40% of the community, with the potential to mine an additional 494 acres. These plans suggest that these two companies could collectively alter 72% of the community’s topography.

This domination of the landscape and commerce concerns many South Rockwood citizens including Sylvanian’s immediate neighbor Doug Wood, who has been the industry’s primary citizen watchdog over the last couple years (photo below).

Mr. Wood was generous enough to let us climb to the top of his barn to snap some photos of the mine. Mr. Wood witnessed the foundation of his home become compromised by the numerous blasting events down in Sylvanian’s mine, and only recently found out that the collective activity at the mines is going to force exit 26 off I-75 to be rerouted to Ready Road, converting this sleepy road into the primary entrance/exit for mine-related traffic. In addition, with the approval of Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, US Silica’s Telegraph Road Mine proposal has Mr. Wood and his neighbors worried about the safety of their families, the air pollution they inhale from the dust and potentially airborne silica, and the truck traffic related noise, which will all undoubtedly influence their health and quality of life.

The primary take-home message from this stop on my tour was that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg with respect to the potential of frac sand mining to literally and figuratively alter communities. Other affected areas such as South Rockwood could learn quite a bit from the likes of LaSalle County, IL residents Anna Mattes, Tom Skomski, and Ashley Williams.

On to the dunes of Western Michigan and Ludington State Park!

Ludington State Park and Sargent Sand’s Mine

After several days in Grand Rapids, I traveled to Ludington State Park in Michigan (see Fig 4 below), along with documentarian/drone pilot Tom Gunnels and Kent County Water Conservation’s Stephanie Mabie. Our destination was the camp of Linda and Ron Daul, the residents spearheading an effort to make Sargent Sand more accountable and transparent in its mining operations. There camp is also located within and adjacent to one of the most sensitive ecosystems in North America.

This is a documentary produced by Tom Gunnels and his Hive•Mind team that incorporated interviews and drone footage from our Ludington/Sargent Sand mine tour August, 2015.

Ms. Daul was kind enough to organize a tour of the mine, Ludington State Park, and northern hardwood forest for us, as well as journalist Aaron Selbig, who produced a piece on the tour for Interlochen Public Radio. The scenery sans the sand mining infrastructure, noise, and related truck traffic was beautiful in this little corner of Michigan roughly half way between Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

Great Lakes sand dunes

Michigan’s unique and threatened dune ecosystems – and associated Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) “plains” or “barrens” ecosystem1 – comprise of 116 square miles of coastline along Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, they are simultaneously deprived of the fire regimes they require to regenerate, and are targets for the production of frac sands with Ludington State Park being the primary example. This makes the feasibility of reclaiming original plant communities dubious at best. (There have been mixed results associated with reclamation efforts, for example, at the former Rosy Mound Standard Sand Corporation’s mine 80 miles due south in Grand Haven, see Fig. 5.)

The largest obstacle to reclamation of sand mines along Lake Michigan is the inability of practitioners to document and replicate the many “microenvironments,” which as Peterson and Dersch pointed out:

…are the small environments created by differences in temperature, moisture, and light intensity within the sand dune ecosystem. Examination of these small environments is essential to a clear understanding of the ‘whole’ ecosystem. The diversity of organisms in sand dune areas is made possible by the variety of habitats found in relatively small areas. Any alteration of the dune which homogenizes the ecosystem will allow less diversity of plants and animals.

The Great Lakes dune complex requires perennial vegetation, wind, and sand for continued formation and stabilization with a complex – and specifically adapted – mosaic of lichens, fungi, mosses, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees arranged in a complicated and multi-layered manner across much of Western Michigan’s lakeshore. As Michigan’s DNR put it:

Without sand dune plants, the integrity and preservation of a stable dune complex cannot exist.

In combination with the Michigan Supreme Court’s constant fiddling of the intent and letter of mineral extraction law, namely the “very serious consequences” clause in House Bill 4746 (2011), you have the makings of a scenario that could eliminate upwards of 16 square miles of Michigan’s critical dunes in the coming years or 9-14% of the entire complex.2

Examples of this unique situation and the threats from Sargent Sand’s expansion include this dune, which is among the largest in Ludington State Park’s 2,820 acres. The Ludington Dunes are also home to the threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) with the LSP encompassing one of the world’s two largest populations of this species according to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. Interestingly, the US Fish & Wildlife Service does not explicitly or implicitly list sand mining as one of their reasons why the species is threatened.

In addition to Pitcher’s Thistle, systems – like those found along the western edge of Michigan – are home to more than 15 endemic, or nearly so, plant species such as:

  • Wormwood (Artemisia campestris, aka the source of Absinthe),
  • The early colonizer sea-rocket (Cakile edentula),
  • Clustered Broom-Rape (Orobanche fasciculata),
  • Harebell (Cakile edentula, at the edge of Sargent Sand’s Ludington mine), and
  • Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), and the species most responsible for dune stabilization Marram Grass (Ammophila sp.).

Additionally, these dunes are critical to the life-cycles of more than 10 different species of birds, reptiles, and herbivores including the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, Eastern Box Turtle, American Goldfinch, and everybody’s favorite, the White-Tailed Deer.

Table 1. Number of Threatened, Endangered, and Rare Plant Species within Western Michigan’s Dune Complex

Criteria # of Species within Michigan’s Dune Complex
Michigan Threatened Species List 72
Michigan Endangered Species List 7
Michigan Rare Species List 3
Extinct 4
US Endangered Species List 1
US Threatened Species List 11

Modified from State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Division, 1979.

Finally, it is of importance to mention the final stage of dune succession are the beech-maple forests, which take an estimated 1,000 years to be achieved according to Jerry Olson (1958). With that said let’s take a look at some of the pictures and testimonial I gathered during my trip to The Great Lake(s) State…

The Photos

A. Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI from Doug Wood’s barn

The Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica Mine Complex, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI. 7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months - Part 2

Location where below photos were taken, showing the Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica Mine Complex, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI

B. Ludington State Park and Sargent Sand’s Silica Sand Mine, Ludington, Mason County, MI

Ecosystems and Native Plants of Ludington State Park, Mason County, MI (16 images, 11 species)

Sargent Sand and Ludington State Park photography Point-Of-View and Tom Gunnel's Drone Flight Path

Sargent Sand and Ludington State Park photography point-of-view and Tom Gunnel’s drone flight path

Ecosystems (8 images, 3 ecosystems within or adjacent to the mine)

C. Eastern Mine Point-Of-View

Active mine operations and reclaimed parcels (8 images)

D. Ludington State Park Point-Of-View

Overburden stockpile, haul roads, and grain separator (7 images)

E. Drone Screenshots Courtesy of documentarian Tom Gunnels at Hive•Mind

Testimonials

Doug and Dawn Wood, South Rockwood, MI

The cards are definitely stacked against you when there is a silica quarry right next door to your dream home/property. We toiled for years to green it up with trees and grass, a labor of love for our “place in the country”. I mean, what’s not to love about semi-truck traffic, air pollution, house tremors not to mention plummeting property values! Since South Rockwood village annexed the quarry in 2010, placing a quarry wall literally 300 feet from my home, we deal with noise of crushers, loaders, drilling for blasting, and blasting. All the while we are left to wonder what kind of garbage we are inhaling since there seems to be NO REGULATIONS, AIR MONITORING OR DUST CONTROL MEASURES AT ANY TIME!! And if that isn’t enough, the village wants to relocate the freeway ramps to our road for the quarry’s trucking convenience.

Al (Chip) Henning, Ludington, MI

Sargent Sand Company has owned this site since the 1920s. The Big Sable Dune Complex is roughly twice the size of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and includes the Nordhouse Federal Wilderness. If Sargent completes their mining as projected over the next 30-40 years, the Ludington Dunes (about 40% of the Complex) will be 60-70% destroyed/mined/removed, sent primarily to Pennsylvania for hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale formation. Sargent has removed 10-15% of the Ludington Dunes, to date, and faces permit renewal in January 2016. My family owns several properties which abut Ludington State Park, whose lands surround the Sargent property narrowly on three sides. Our property lies 1200 feet from the Sargent operations at closest approach; aside from the unsustainable removal of the sands, the noise from Sargent’s 24-7-365 operations is frequently intolerable.

Linda Bergles Daul, Ludington, MI

Fracking sand is mined from ancient geological sand deposits, extremely rare across the globe.   In Michigan, the Sargent Sand – Ludington (State Park) Site, on the west coastline of Lake Michigan, enjoys a controversial, grandfathered permit to mine irreplaceable sand in critical dunes for horizontal fracking application. When the Sargent Sand mine is operating, the peaceful retreat of Hamlin Lake might as well be a downtown Chicago construction site, sharing heavy truck traffic, air pollution and mine numbing noise with our Pure Michigan visitors. The beauty and majesty of Ludington State Park has enriched my life. The critical dunes are one of Michigan and LSP’s most spectacular natural features – they also are one of our most fragile! The dunes are a phenomenon unique to the State of Michigan and yet we allow permitted critical sand dune mining right next to LSP. Sargent sand expansion towards LSP resulting in the removal of 200 year-old stabilizing trees, dredging to create artificial lakes, disregard for wildlife and the critical dune ecosystem, should be addressed within LSP master plans. I would like to see a world-class, university associated educational program established at Ludington State Park, addressing dune ecosystems. The LSP master plan should deliberately study the impact of Sargent Sand Mining operation and propose a broader vision that will consolidate the park in a way that preserves its beauty for future generations. [Furthermore] The State of Michigan Sec. 35302 The legislature finds that: (a) The critical dune areas of this state are a unique, irreplaceable, economic, scientific, geological, scenic, botanical, educational, agricultural, and ecological benefits to the people of this state and to people from other states and countries who visit this resource. EXCEPT if the activity is involved in sand dune mining as defined in part 637.

Julia Chambers, President of A Few Friends for the Environment of the World (AFFEW), Ludington, MI

Sargent Sands sand mining has been viewed as mainly negative in the Ludington-Mason County community. This company was “dormant” until hydraulic fracturing became somewhat popular.   Most citizens and visitors do not like to see the dunes removed in this area so close to the Ludington State Park.   Destruction of critical dune area and possible endangered plants are the main concerns. Other impacts to this community include the immense noise created by the mining for families with homes by the mine and all the trucks going through town to the freight trains. Another issue is the wear on the roads. Also mentioned to me was the time spent waiting at the train crossings because of the sand being transported to other areas via trains. I really haven’t heard any positive comments. My guess would be that the mining creates jobs for the truckers, train workers, and of course the employees of the company. As far as in the future there are rumors that Sargent Sands will continue to mine and then make the area a destination place with condos around the lake they created. This is turn will bring more traffic to the dunes, not a sustainable idea!

Glenn Walquist, DVM, Country Veterinary Clinic, Ludington, MI

I really do “get it” in understanding that jobs are critically important for our State. Mouths are fed, bills are paid, colleges are attended. But the damage to Ludington left in Sargent Sands’ wake when it is done here someday will be permanent scars from the removal of Sand Dunes so rare and so beautiful, that I’m certain that we will all regret what we allowed to happen while on “our watch”. I believe that Ludington’s precious Sand Dunes are not really “ours”…to destroy or allow to be taken. They are timeless natural resources that we have simply been granted stewardship over by our own forefathers and mothers. Allow our children and great grandchildren the privilege of seeing and enjoying what we ourselves have been lucky enough to have seen and touched. “As a native Michigander and 13 year resident of Ludington, I can confidently tell anybody willing to listen that Sargent Sands is (at this very moment) irreversibly destroying one of Michigan’s last remaining precious and timeless natural resources. We… OWE IT to generations that follow us, the right to marvel at and enjoy what is one of this Country’s uniquely beautiful natural treasures… Ludington’s sand dunes. I ignorantly believed, at first, when Sargent Sands began mining sand again here that it would be something akin to raking one’s yard of leaves. When I had an opportunity to hike their mining operation’s perimeter, I witnessed what looks like strip-mining devastation. It’s saddens me that I was complicit (when I myself purchased some sand for my backyard from Sargent’s) but I am more frightened that our own DEQ (who should have known better) would have ever approved such disfiguring and permanent alteration to something so rarely seen in nature. I myself have marveled…at something that I believe only a few places on Earth possess…sand dunes so unique, so beautiful and so rarely seen (and…FREE to hike and to look at !) along a freshwater lake that happens to be what is increasingly being recognized as our Country’s lifeblood. In the Winter here when it snows, I often wonder how many people in other countries can even imagine what snow blowing in sand dunes looks like…the beautiful swirling mixture of sandy snow wrapping around dune grasses that stretch as far as the eyes can see –but now being trucked away. I ask our State, especially in light of Flint’s man made devastation, PLEASE do not allow this to continue when Sargent Sands’ permit expires in December of 2016. This sand mining destruction cannot be undone.

Additional Readings

Buckler, W.R., 1978. Dune Type Inventory and Barrier Dune Classification Study of Michigan’s Lake Michigan Shore, in: Resources, M.D.o.N. (Ed.). Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, MI.

Carlisle, N., 1960. Michigan’s Marching Dunes. Coronet 48, 159.

Cowles, H.C., 1899. The Ecological Relationship of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan. Botanical Gazette 27, 95-117, 167-202, 281-308, 361-391.

Cressey, G.B., 1928. The Indian sand Dunes and Shore Lines of the Lake Michigan Basin, The Geographic Society of Chicago Bulletin. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Daniel, G., 1977. Dune Country A Guide For Hikers and Naturalists. The Shallow Press Inc., Chicago, IL.

Dorr, J.A., Eschman, D.F., 1970. The Geology of Michigan. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

Kelley, R.W., 1962. Sand Dunes, A Geologic Sketch, in: Conservation, M.D.o. (Ed.). Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, MI.

Koske, R.E., Sutton, J.C., Sheppard, B.R., Ecology of Endogone in Lake Huron Sand Dunes. Canadian Journal of Botany 53, 87-93.

Odum, E.P., 1971. Fundamentals of Ecology. W.B. Sanders Company, Philadelphia, PA.

Olson, J.S., 1958. Rates of succession and soil changes on Southern Lake Michigan sand dunes. Botanical Gazette 119, 125-170.

Peterson, J.M., Dersch, E., 1981. A Guide To Sand Dune and Coastal Ecosystem Functional Relationships, in: Service, M.C.E. (Ed.). Michigan Cooperative Extension Service, Lansing, MI.

Ranwell, D.S., 1972. Ecology of Salt Marshes and Sand Dunes. Chapman and Hall, London, UK.

Reinking, R.L., Gephart, D.G., 1978. Pattern of Revegetation of a Shoreline Dune Area, Allegan County, Michigan. The Michigan Academician 11.

Thompson, P.W., 1967. Vegetation and Common Plants of Sleeping Bear. Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Footnotes for 7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 2

  1. Michigan’s DNR describes this ecosystem as having “always contained few large trees and little or no old growth. A forest where soils are dry and the vegetation sparse, it is called a barrens. A forest periodically swept by raging fires, only to spring back, fresh and revitalized. A forest which is amazingly productive and biologically diverse, providing homes for numerous plants and animals, many of them [endemic]. Today [we are]…seeking to extract its resources, enjoy its beauty, explore its secrets, and preserve its life. The jack pine forests can exist, only if we care.”
  2. As Michigan State researchers pointed out the Michigan coastal dune ecosystem exists in small fragments along the Atlantic Coastal Plain but nowhere else in the world

Surveyor Symbols & Signs – A Guide

The following guide is a simplified description of a variety of markings that are used by land surveyors. Throughout an active shale gas field, the first signs of pending expansions are the simple markings of stakes, flags, and pins. Many months or even years before the chain saw fells the first tree or the first dozer blade cuts the dirt at a well pad location, the surveyors have “marked the target” on behalf of their corporate tactical command staff.

The three most commonly used markings are the simple stakes, flags and pins. These surveyor symbols are common to any construction project and guarantee that everything gets put in the right place. In an active gas field, these marking tools are used for all aspects of exploration and production:

  • access roads to well pads,
  • widening the traveled portion of the roadway,
  • well locations,
  • ponds and impoundment locations,
  • temporary water pipeline paths,
  • surface disturbance limits,
  • compressor stations,
  • gas processing sites, and
  • rights-of-way for roads and pipelines.

Quite frequently these simple markings are undecipherable by themselves, especially by non-professionals. One cannot just know what is happening, what is likely to occur, or how concerned one should be. Context and additional information are usually needed. Sometimes the simple colors and combinations of colored tapes might only make sense in conjunction with similar markings nearby. Sometimes public notices in the newspaper and regulatory permits must be used to decipher what is planned.

For an example, the proposed 30″ diameter EQT pipeline called the Ohio Valley Connector seems to be regularly marked using a combination of blue and white (see figure 10 below) surveyors tape to mark the actual pipeline location, then green and white (see figure 4 below) to mark all the proposed access roads along the routes that will be used to get pipe trucks and excavation equipment into the right of way. These access roads might be public roadways or cut across private leased property.

Common surveyor symbols & signs (click on images to zoom in)

Surveyor flags and tape: Sometime the flags or streamers are just attached to trees, fence posts, or put on a stake to make them visible above the weeds. There might be no markings on the stake, or only simple generic markings. This could just mean that this is the correct road and turn here. It could also signal a proposed or approximate location for some future work.

Simple surveyor’s flags or tape

Simple surveyor’s flags or tape

Surveyor flags and tapes: These are a selection of typical surveyor tapes, also called flags or ribbons. Many other specialty color combinations are available to the professional surveyor.

A selection of surveyor tapes

Stakes with simple markings: Flags with some type of identification (it might be names or numbers). This one was used for a proposed well pad access road location. There are no dimensions given on these.

Stake with simple markings

Stakes with simple flags and basic identification: The stakes shown here all indicate an access route to be used for equipment and trucks to get to a proposed pipeline right of way. The “H310″ is the EQT name for the 30” OVC pipeline.

Stakes indicating an access route

Control points: These three stakes are identifying a control point that is outside the limits of disturbance (LoD). These markings surround a pin to be used for reference.

Control point stakes

Controls points: This stake is also identifying a control point location. All control points will have some type of driven metal rod, usually with a plastic cap identifying the surveyor. Frequently there are three stakes with extra flags or tape. They are always set off to the side of the intended work area. They are not to be disturbed.

Control point stake and pin

Control points: Another set of three stakes marking a Control Point location. It is common to see triple stakes with elaborate, multiple flags. Even if only two stakes are present, there always will be a driven steel pin and identifying cap.

Control point stakes and pin

Control points: This shows a close-up of the identifying cap on a metal driven steel pin. Control point locations are not meant to be disturbed as they are for future and repeated reference. They might give the latitude and longitude on the stake plus the altitude above sea level.

Control point pin and cap

Control points: This is another, older control point location. This represents a typical arrangement where the stakes somewhat try to protect the metal pin from a bulldozer blade by warning its operator.

Control point pin protection

Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” here means the limits of disturbance. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. The stakes shown here indicates that this is the outside limit of where the contractor will be disturbing the original contour of the surface soil.

Limit of disturbance stakes

Limit of disturbance: The “L O D” means the limits of disturbance of the proposed pipeline right of way. Beyond this point there should not be any trees cut or dirt moved. This could also be used for the outside edge of well pads or access roads or pond locations.

Limit of disturbance ROW stakes

Pipelines: Stakes with flags and “center line” markings are usually for pipelines. Here you see the symbol for center line: a capital letter “C” imposed on the letter “L”.

Pipelines center line

Pipelines: Again you see the capital letter “C” super imposed on top of the letter “L” used frequently for pipe line center lines, but can also be used for proposed access roads.

Pipelines center line

Pipelines: As shown here, “C” and “L” center line flags can also be used for future well pad access roads.

Road access center line

Precise location markings: Stakes like this will usually have a steel pin also associated with it. This stake gives the latitude, longitude, and elevation of the site.

Precise location stake

Permanent property lines: You may also find markings, like this one inch steel rod with an alum cap, that denote permanent property lines and corners of property.

Permanent property rod

Permanent property lines: Another kind of permanent property line or corner marker is the “boundary survey monument.” This is likely an aluminum cap on top of a one inch diameter steel bar.

Boundary survey monument

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 1

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. Chicago_KCBX_BP

ChicagoLand_Income_Hardship

Figure 1. Average income per capita and Hardship Index (0-100 with 100 being the worst) for Chicago’s neighborhoods with Hegewisch highlighted in the city’s southeast corner.

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.

KCBX_BP_POV

NAmerican_Ports_Refineries

Figure 2. Average daily oil refinery production per day across North America’s 152 Oil Refineries along with North American ports.

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.

La Salle County, IL Silica Sand Mines & St. Peter Sandstone Geology

Figure 3. La Salle County, IL Silica Sand Mines & St. Peter Sandstone Geology

Chicago_Vs_LaSalleCounty_Comparison

Table 1. Chicagoland and LaSalle County, Illinois summary demographics, economic prosperity, and agricultural productivity.

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.

US_Silica_OttawaCo

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.

Unimin_NorthUtica

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.

Unimin_NorthUtica_NorthernWhiteSand

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.

Resident Testimonials

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.

Footnote

  1. 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.

Trust vs Uncertainty in Argentine Communities

By Sam Rubright, MPH, CPH – with contributions from Ana Wieman and editing by Cecilia G. Flocco, PhD

While the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is a globally critical issue (link updated in 2018) with significant implications for the oil and gas industry, the same industry encounters on-the-ground challenges in many places where extraction occurs. Argentina is now experiencing those challenges firsthand.

Argentina, South America’s 3rd largest economy, could have 801.5 trillion cubic feet of wet shale gas (more than unproven US reserves), and 27 billion barrels of tight oil.1 Oil and gas companies are excited about the prospects. Argentina has even started to produce its own sand for the hydraulic fracturing process in an attempt to reduce the cost of drilling and attract investors. Already, however, community concerns about environmental health and safety are rising to the surface.

Allen, Argentina

Allen is a city in the Río Negro (“Black River”) province of Argentina, located at the northern edge of the Patagonia region. It is known for its rich fruit production and hosts approximately 27,000 inhabitants as of the most recent census.2,3 Allen is also home to shale oil and gas drilling currently being conducted by Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), Argentina’s renationalized energy company.

On July 21, 2015, two separate incidents occurred near Allen. In the first case, a violent decompression at the well4 triggered what was likely a blowout. The spray that resulted caused hydrocarbons to be deposited into a lagoon that flows into the Black River, the province’s namesake and one of the main water sources for the arid Patagonian plateau. Clean up efforts took place immediately, although there was a lack of awareness that a rural community, Calle Ciega #10, lives very close to the drilling activity.5 Less than 24 hours later, Ysur, a YPF contractor, damaged an aqueduct near the town, leaving coastal area residents without drinking water.6

Mirroring community concerns near drilling operations in the US, residents of Calle Ciega #10 have felt the effects ever since the industry came to town; living near such intense industrial activity, they say, has put them all on edge. They worry about everything from cracking foundations, fire and explosions, potential gas leaks, to the heavy truck traffic. Organic farmers are even having trouble selling their produce due to the proximity of oil and gas operations to their fields. The uncertainty of it all is the biggest problem; residents have gone so far as to protest the recent incidents by blocking access to one of wells in the area (EFO 250).7 The neighbors’ concerns were brought to a civil court by Rio Negro province’s Ombudsman, action resulting in ordering environmental impact investigations and in ceasing activities at the well (EFO 280).8

Below you will find some photos from Allen, showing the trucks that transport water for the drilling, a warehouse for sand and ceramics, the well where there were two explosions in recent history, and piping that goes into a neighbor’s yard – Submitted by Ana Wieman:

Trust vs Uncertainty

Argentine communities are fighting a battle between trusting that the industry and government will properly manage oil and gas operations and being left in the dark about public health and safety risks. In addition to the incidents in Allen, a major cyanide spill from a gold mine9 in San Juan province in September (exploited by Canadian Barrick Gold Corp.) has added fuel to public concerns about how Argentine natural resources, as well as the response to incidents and information, are being handled. Inconsistent messages elevate community tensions, leaving a trail of doubt and uncertainty in their wake.

“Vos y yo, bebemos la misma agua.” = “You and I, we drink the same water.”
– Facebook sentiment by Elvio Mendioroz, Argentina


Footnotes and Additional Resources

  1. World Shale Resource Assessments. (2015). US EIA
  2. Rio Negro Province Census (2010)
  3. Geographic coordinates: 38°58′00″S 67°50′00″O
  4. Excavadora dejó dos barrios sin agua (Excavator left two neighborhoods without water). (2015). Rionegro.com.ar
  5. EFO well 280 located between the rural road 11 and Route 22
  6. Escape de petróleo cayó a una laguna en Allen (Escape of oil fell to a lagoon in Allen). (2015). Rionegro.com.ar
  7. Allen: “La vida cambió para peor” alertan vecinos por petrolera (Allen: “Life changed for the worse” Neighbors alert the oil company’s presence). Rionegro.com.ar
  8. La Justicia buscará determinar el posible impacto ambiental del pozo EFO 280. (The Justice will determine the possible environmental impact of well EFO 280). (2015). defensoriarionegro.gov.ar
  9. Cyanide Spill Resources:
    1. Argentina: El cianuro llega al río (Argentina: Cyanide reaches the river). (2015). Biodiversity in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    2. Jáchal y San Juan reclaman la prohibición de la minería a cielo abierto tras el derrame de cianuro en la mina de Barrick Gold (Jáchal and San Juan demand the ban on open pit mining after the cyanide spill at Barrick Gold mine). (2015). lavaca.org.
    3. Por el derrame de cianuro en San Juan, piden incluir los delitos ambientales en el Código Penal (For the cyanide spill in San Juan, they ask to include environmental crimes in the Penal Code). (2015). Cronista.com.
    4. Derrame de Cianuro en San Juan (Cyanide spill in San Juan). (2015). About the cyanide spill in the Veladero mine, San Juan – TV news show
    5. Jáchal, cuando ya nadie te nombre (Jáchal, when no one will say your name – anymore). (2015). De Tierras y de Utopias Viaje Documental – From Lands and Utopies, documentary of the spill in Jáchal that resulted in years of existing water problems
    6. Jorge Lanata’s interview with Simón Ernesto about the spill in Veladero. (2015) by Canal Zeta y Cero, Argentina

Please note: Many of the resources we accessed to write this story, as well as most correspondence, were in Spanish. Please alert Sam to any translation errors: malone@fractracker.org.