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Frac sand mine in Wisconsin

Living on the Front Lines with Silica Sand Mines

Guest blog by Christine Yellowthunder, an environmental activist, tree farmer, and poet

Most people living in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa have increased their knowledge over the past six years regarding the fracking destruction occurring across the country.  The horror of fracking damages to life and land remain in the minds of most people who live near the massive land destruction from silica sand mining for what the unconventional oil and gas industry lovingly calls “proppant”.

Very often, we in the Midwest wonder if the rest of the country knows that this specialized form of silica sand mining destroys our rolling hills, woodlands, and water sources in order for silica sand to feed the fracking industry’s insatiable proppant demand.

Those of us who live in the direct path of this unhealthy silica sand mining need to make our stories known.

Bridge Creek Town, Wisconsin

The quiet abundance of life on an 80-acre tree farm in Wisconsin, fed by natural springs and wetlands, has nurtured every dream this prairie-raised transplant could conceive in the last 30 years. Six years of vigilance and rational debate has led to loss on every front when addressing the local government’s permitting of silica sand mines and its health and safety impacts on the community.

The largest sand mine in Bridge Creek Town lies one mile north of our tree farm. Two years ago, 40 acres of trees were culled for the installation of high intensity power lines to feed anticipated silica sand mine expansion under the legal provision of “Right-of-Way.” That document was signed by a previous land owner in 1948. No specific amount of land was specified on the original right-of-way, thus allowing significant legal destruction and permanent loss against the farm.

However, from a tree farm owner’s perspective, we have seen the variety and number of wildlife species increase at our farm over the past six years – likely because these species view our farm as an oasis, or what ecologists call a refugium, in an otherwise altered mixed-use landscape. The maximum capacity of the tree farm as a wildlife sanctuary is unknown. The adjacent silica Hi-Crush sand mine depletes the hillsides and woodlots in its path.

Frac Sand Mine, Eau Claire County, WI

Frac sand mine in Eau Claire County, WI

Hi-Crush Partners LP’s frac sand mine

The weekly blasting away of the hillsides sends shock waves – shaking homes and outbuildings weekly, along with our nerves. Visible cracks appear in the walls of buildings, and private wells are monitored for collapse and contamination.  The sand mine only guarantees repair to property lying within a half-mile of the mine. The mine blasts the land near Amish schools and has had a noticeable effect on the psyche of countless farm animals. The invisible silica is breathed by every living thing much to the mine’s denial, with deadly silicosis appearing up to 15 years after initial exposure. Our community is left to wonder who will manifest the health effects first. Blasting unearths arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into private wells and into the remaining soil.

There has been no successful reclamation of the land after it is mined, with most residents wondering what the actual point is of developing a reclamation plan is if timely implementation and stringent reclamation metrics are not enforced.  All useful topsoil has been stripped away and is dead with the land only able to support sedge grasses and very few of them at best. No farming on this mined land can occur even though these mining companies promise farm owners that when they are done mining, soil productivity will meet or exceed pre-mining conditions and much milder slopes than the pre-mining bluffs that contained the silica sand. Needless to say, land values of homes, farms, and property decrease as the mines creeps closer.

Explore photos of Hi-Crush Partner’s frac sand mine:

The people of Bridge Creek

Bridge Creek, as well as many other towns, have been easy picking for the mines. Many towns are unzoned, having little industry, a meager tax base, and a huge land area for a very sparse population.  The unemployment and underemployment rates are quite high. Many residents in Bridge Creek farm, including a very large population of Amish who own a checkerboard of land used for farming and saw mills. Most of these Amish families arrived here from Canada and bought farms when the mid 80’s drought put small farms up for sale. The Amish community seldom votes, and their strong religious beliefs prevent them from taking a stand on any political issues.

Video of contaminated well water an Amish farm in Augusta, WI near frac sand mining

Scroll to the end of the article to explore more impacts to the Amish community

The original residents of this land, the Ho-Chunk people, are few in number and wish to protect their home lands that they had purchased back from the government. 

Furthermore, a significant number of artists live in this community and have chosen to keep their homes and studios in anonymity. Thus, it is very difficult to amass any unity among this diverse population to stand up to the local government. Many long-time residents have the attitude that you can’t stop “progress.” I wonder if they know that this kind of progress kills the future?

Broken promises made by the mining company for jobs and huge payments to the initial land sellers have divided families and the community. Even though the mining boom was sold as a job provider, few locals are employed by the mines. There is little faith that the local government will provide for the safety and well being of its residents.  Presentation of research, facts regarding aquifer endangerment and silica sand health risks, and proposals written in detail outlining potential protective ordinances have cost citizens, including myself, enormous amounts of time and money. The government responses remain the same. The sand mines have been allowed to continue destruction of the natural resources to no one’s benefit except for the enormous profits lining the coffers of the mining corporations.

Resistance sign reading "No Frac Sand Mining" in the August area of Wisconsin

Today, after six years of continuous silica sand mining moving ever closer, I can no longer fight logically and linearly to eliminate the greed, injustice, and usurped power head on. I fight land destruction as a different warrior.

I choose to protect this land and wood by nurturing its existence through planting more native trees, educating others to the wisdom and wonder of nature, by photo journaling the struggle for its survival and documenting this land’s story so that future citizens will know the truth. Moreover, I will continue to spread the message loud and long: stopping the silica sand mining will stop fracking.

These efforts may be the best that I can manage with a grieving heart. A fierce spirit will continue to share this story and those of others living in the Midwest where the silica sand laden hills roll under the top soil of our lives.


Christine Yellowthunder is an environmental activist of Lakota heritage and is also a tree farmer and poet. She lives on her farm with her husband Ralph Yellowthunder, a Ho-Chunk elder and Vietnam combat veteran.

The Amish community in Bridge Creek:

Listen below to in interview of an Amish farmer and clock maker who lives adjacent to the Hi-Crush mine, by Ted Auch, FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and local resident, Mary Ann O’Donahue:

 

Photos of the property and workshop:


Feature image: Frac sand mining in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from LightHawk.

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.

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

New Frac Sand Resources on FracTracker.org

We’ve added several new frac sand resources for visitors to our website this month, including a map of frac sand mines, as well as geolocated data you can download. Explore these resources using the map and links below:

Updated Frac Sand Mining Map


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

On the map above you can view silica sands/frac sand mines, drying facilities, and value-added facilities in North America. Click view map fullscreen to see the legend, an address search bar, and other tools available on our maps.

Additional data shown on this map include addresses and facility polygons. Wisconsin provides sand production data for 24 facilities, so that information has been included on this map. The remaining Wisconsin and other state facilities do not have production or acreage data associated with them. (Most states lack disclosure requirements for releasing this kind of data. Additionally the USGS maintains a confidentiality agreement with all firms, preventing us from obtaining production data.)

The sandstone/silica geology polygons (areas on the map) include a breakdown of how much land is currently made up of agriculture, urban/suburban, temperate deciduous forest, and conifer forests. At the present time we only have this information for the primary frac-sand-producing state: Wisconsin. We should have details for Ohio and Minnesota soon.

Data Downloads

Click on the links below to download various geolocated datasets (zipped shape files) related to the frac sand industry:

  1. SIC and/or NAICS related violations and inspections
  2. Resin Coating Facilities
  3. Silica Sand Mine Time Series polygon expansion over time (in Wisconsin, Illinois, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Missouri)
  4. Existing Silica Sand Mine Points
  5. Existing Silica Sand Mine Polygon land-use
  6. St. Peter and Sylvanian Surficial Sandstone Geologies
  7. Frac Sand Mine Proposals – inventory of frac sand mine proposals in LaSalle County, IL; Monroe County, IL; Arkansas; and Minnesota
  8. Western Michigan frac sand mines within or adjacent to sensitive dunes
  9. Mid or downstream frac sand industry participants (PDF) – detailed descriptions of 34 US and 4 Canadian firms
The BP Whiting, IN Oil Refinery

US Oil Refineries and Economic Justice

How annual incomes in the shadow of oil refineries compare to state and regional prosperity

North American Oil Refinery Capacity (Barrels Per Day (BPD))

Figure 1. North American Oil Refinery Capacity

Typically, we analyze the potential economic impacts of oil refineries by simply quantifying potential and/or actual capacity on an annual or daily basis. Using this method, we find that the 126 refineries operating in the U.S. produce an average of 100,000-133,645 barrels per day (BPD) of oil – or 258 billion gallons per year.

In all of North America, there are 158 refineries. When you include the 21 and 27 billion gallons per year produced by our neighbors to the south and north, respectively, North American refineries account for 23-24% of the global refining capacity. That is, of course, if you believe the $113 dollar International Energy Agency’s 2016 “Medium-Term Oil Market Report” 4.03 billion gallon annual estimates (Table 1 and Figure 1).

Table 1. Oil Refinery Capacity in the United States and Canada (Barrels Per Day (BPD))

United States Canada Mexico Total
Refinery Count 126 17 6 158
Average Capacity 133,645 BPD 104,471 BPD 228,417 BPD 139,619 BPD
Low Foreland & Silver Eagle Refining in NV & WY, 2-3K BPD Prince George & Moose Jaw Refining in BC and SK, 12-15K BPD Pemex’s Ciudad Madero Refinery, 152K BPD
High Exxon Mobil in TX & LA, 502-560K BPD Valero and Irving Oil Refining in QC & NS, 265-300K BPD Pemex’s Tula Refinery, 340K BPD
Median 100,000 BPD 85,000 BPD 226,500 109,000
Total Capacity 16.8 MBPD 1.8 MBPD 1.4 MBPD 22.1 MBPD

Census Tract Income Disparities

However, we would propose that an alternative measure of a given oil refinery’s impact would be neighborhood prosperity in the census tract(s) where the refinery is located. We believe this figure serves as a proxy for economic justice. As such, we recently used the above refinery location and capacity data in combination with US Census Bureau Cartographic Boundaries (i.e., Census Tracts) and the Census’ American FactFinder clearinghouse to estimate neighborhood prosperity near refineries.

Methods

Our analysis involved merging oil refineries to their respective census tracts in ArcMAP 10.2, along with all census tracts that touch the actual census tract where the refineries are located, and calling that collection the oil refinery’s sphere of influence, for lack of a better term. We then assigned Mean Income in the Past 12 Months (In 2014 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) values for each census tract to the aforementioned refinery tracts – as well as surrounding regional, city, and state tracts – to allow for a comparison of income disparities. We chose to analyze mean income instead of other variables such as educational attainment, unemployment, or poverty percentages because it largely encapsulates these economic indicators.

As the authors of the UN’s International Forum of Social Development paper Social Justice in an Open World wrote:

In today’s world, the enormous gap in the distribution of wealth, income and public benefits is growing ever wider, reflecting a general trend that is morally unfair, politically unwise and economically unsound… excessive income inequality restricts social mobility and leads to social segmentation and eventually social breakdown…In the modern context, those concerned with social justice see the general  increase  in  income  inequality  as  unjust,  deplorable  and  alarming.  It is argued that poverty reduction and overall improvements in the standard of living are attainable goals that would bring the world closer to social justice.

Environmental regulatory agencies like to separate air pollution sources into point and non-point sources. Point sources are “single, identifiable” sources, whereas non-point are more ‘diffuse’ resulting in impacts spread out over a larger geographical area. We would equate oil refineries to point sources of socioeconomic and/or environmental injustice. The non-point analysis would be far more difficult to model given the difficulties associated with converting perceived quality of life disturbance(s) associated with infrastructure like compressor stations from the anecdotal to the empirical.

Results

Primarily, residents living in the shadow of 80% of our refineries earn nearly $16,000 less than those in the surrounding region – or, in the case of urban refineries, the surrounding Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Only residents living in census tracts within the shadow of 25 of our 126 oil refineries earn around $10,000 more annually than those in the region.

On average, residents of census tracts that contain oil refineries earn 13-16% less than those in the greater region and/or MSAs (Figure 2). Similarly, in comparing oil refinery census tract incomes to state averages we see a slightly larger 17-21% disparity (Figure 3).

Digging Deeper

United States Oil Refinery Income Disparities (Note: Larger points indicate oil refinery census tracts that earn less than the surrounding region or city)

Figure 4. United States Oil Refinery Income Disparities (Note: Larger points indicate oil refinery census tracts that earn less than the surrounding region or city.)

Oil refinery income disparities seem to occur not just in one region, but across the U.S. (Figure 4).

The biggest regional/MSA disparities occur in northeastern Denver neighborhoods around the Suncor Refinery complex (103,000 BPD), where the refinery’s census tracts earn roughly $42,000 less than Greater Denver residents1. California, too, has some issues near its Los Angeles’ Valero and Tesoro Refineries and Chevron’s Bay Area Refinery, with a combined daily capacity of nearly 600 BPD. There, two California census associations in the shadow of those refineries earn roughly $38,000 less than Contra Costa and Los Angeles Counties, respectively. In the Lone Star state Marathon’s Texas City, Galveston County refinery resides among census tracts where annual incomes nearly $33,000 less than the Galveston-Houston metroplex. Linden, NJ and St. Paul, MN, residents near Conoco Phillips and Flint Hills Resources refineries aren’t fairing much better, with annual incomes that are roughly $35,000 and nearly $33,000 less than the surrounding regions, respectively.

Click on the images below to explore each of the top disparate areas near oil refineries in the U.S. in more detail. Lighter shades indicate census tracks with a lower mean annual income ($).

Conclusion

Clearly, certain communities throughout the United States have been essentially sacrificed in the name of Energy Independence and overly-course measures of economic productivity such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The presence and/or construction of mid- and downstream oil and gas infrastructure appears to accelerate an already insidious positive feedback loop in low-income neighborhoods throughout the United States. Only a few places like Southeast Chicago and Detroit, however, have even begun to discuss where these disadvantaged communities should live, let alone how to remediate the environmental costs.

Internally Displaced People

There exists a robust history of journalists and academics focusing on Internally Displaced People (IDP) throughout war-torn regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia – to name a few – and most of these 38 million people have “become displaced within their own country as a result of violence.” However, there is a growing body of literature and media coverage associated with current and potential IDP resulting from rising sea levels, drought, chronic wildfire, etc.

The issues associated with oil and gas infrastructure expansion and IDPs are only going to grow in the coming years as the Shale Revolution results in a greater need for pipelines, compressor stations, cracker facilities, etc. We would propose there is the potential for IDP resulting from the rapid, ubiquitous, and intense expansion of the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex here in the United States.

N. American Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex Map


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Footnotes and Additional Reading

  1. The Suncor refinery was implicated in a significant leak of tar sands crude associated benzene into the South Platte River as recently as 2013. According to Suncor’s website this refinery “supplies about 35% of Colorado’s gasoline and diesel fuel demand and is a major supplier of jet fuel to the Denver International Airport. The refinery is also the largest supplier of paving-grade asphalt in Colorado.”
  2. New York Times story on the growing footprint of BP’s Whiting Refinery: Surrounded by Industry, a Historic Community Fights for Its Future

By Ted Auch, PhD – Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance