Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin

Frac Sand

Frac sand is a high-purity quartz sand that is injected into wells to blast and hold open cracks in the shale rock layer during the fracking process. In the United States, frac sand is being mined intensively from sandstone deposits across large swaths of land in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan. With the sand, however, comes a number of air, water, public health concerns. These include but are not limited to:

  • Displacing agricultural lands and ecologically sensitive ecosystems,
  • Damaging surface water, like streams, and
  • Introducing silica sand into the air, which is a human health hazard.

Additionally, community tensions and distrust often follow such a major industrial expansion. Learn more about these issues and more below.

Maps

FracTracker Articles

Industrial Impacts in Michigan: A Photo Essay & Story Map

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Southwest Detroit and neighboring South Rockwood in Monroe County…

Undermined: Voices from the Frontlines of Frac Sand Mining

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FracTracker and Public Lab, with support from Save the Hills Alliance, produced "Undermined," an audio story featuring interviews with three residents impacted by the Hi-Crush Mine in Augusta, Wisconsin.

Trends in Proposed State Legislation to Weaken Environmental Regulations

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As the oil and gas industry feels pressure from former allies…
Frac Sand Mining 2013- Photo by Ted Auch
Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s Nonmetallic Mining Parcel Registration Program

How the frac sand industry is circumventing local control, plus…
Frac sand mine in Wisconsin

Living on the Front Lines with Silica Sand Mines

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Guest blog by Christine Yellowthunder, an environmental activist,…

FRONTLINE IMPRESSIONS

Want to know more about frac sand mining? Hear from nearby residents.

AUDIO LIBRARY

Audio Stories from People Living Near Oil & Gas Development

IMPACT TESTIMONIALS

In Their Own Words

The most difficult thing for the frac-sand industry will be to reclaim mined properties to meet their end use stated in their reclamation plans which are required under Wisconsin Statues. Most of the hills that are being mined have extremely shallow topsoil as well as limited sub-soil… In the reclamation trial that Chippewa County Land Conservation Department has put together they are proceeding with a few inches of topsoil over about a foot of sub-soil according to the preliminary plans. Part of the site will incorporate fines from the washing process, part will have dairy manure, part both of them and part will have neither amendment. In addition due to the source of a large part of the materials-forested hillsides-it is expected to have a rather low pH, fertility issues, and poor moisture holding ability. It is the opinion of many of us that the end result will be a very poor stand of grass with some woody plants of very poor quality and little value on the whole for wildlife. Some areas may be reclaimed as crop land, however it is our opinion that substantial inputs such as commercial fertilizer as well as irrigation will be required in most if not all cases in order to produce an average crop. In addition we fear that due to the loosely consolidated nature of the profile and nearness of the mine floor to the water table (3-5 feet in some cases) there will be a substantial risk of groundwater contamination from pesticides and fertilizers in these cases.

I often wonder what it was like before the boom, before fortunes were built on castles of sand and resultant moonscapes stretched as far as the eye could see. In the past few years alone, the nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has become a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, Illinois. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate and threaten thewellbeing of our people and rural ecosystem.

There are numerous questions regarding frac-sand mining about which we do not yet have adequate scientific data but we are slowly, but too slowly, in the process of getting them.

What will the soils on the reclaimed sites support?

In Chippewa County alone, there are 285 sand and gravel pits historically providing material for local construction industry. Despite the fact that Wis. Statutes NR 135 requires reclamation of all sites, only 2 sites in the County have been reclaimed in the past 18 years. None two sites are capable of supporting the growing of food.   They grow trees and some cover grass, but that is all. General scientific research says that the reclaimed soils lose up to 75% of their agricultural productivity. Most of these gravel pits acre in the glacial outwash area of Chippewa County. However, the picture is worse when it comes to the bedrock sandstone geology from which frac sand is extracted and processed. These mines are required to stay 5 feet above the water table because of the potential for leaching lead and iron into the groundwater if one goes below the water table.   In that case, the loss of fertility, microbial habitat, arability, infiltration and retention of water, and other soil properties would require heavy use of chemicals to produce anything and that is prohibited because of the inevitable contamination of the groundwater being so close to the table without any real buffering capacity in the soil to prevent the contamination. I serve on an advisory board of the Chippewa County Land Conservation Department which has entered into a partnership study with the University of Wisconsin River Falls Department of Soil Science and two frac-sand companies to study reclaimed soil characteristics. When that is completed in a year or soil, we will know more—but I believe the results will not be good.

We do not now know what the total projected loss of currently arable farmland to frac sand mining will be over a period of just the next 20 years. We have no estimate of the cost and the loss of thousands of sustainable agricultural acres in our water rich region when the “breadbasket” in the central plains states is going to disappear due in part to climate change but more importantly to the irrigation – pumping of the remaining 25% left of the Ogallala aquifer (a confined acquirer that does not get replenished by average rainfall) in the next 25-40 years. Right now we are paying farmers not to plant arable land, but I suspect that we not be the practice when we fall show of sustainable would for a growing national and world population.

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.

Today’s mechanized farmer sees the hills as an impediment to “fence to fence” monoculture agriculture and looks on the sand mining as away to get the hills pared down to a gentler slope so that he can use the machinery to plant more of the land to whatever row crop he is growing on the rest of the farm – not recognizing that the land that will be there after the mine will be nowhere near as fertile as the rest of the farm!

[Chippewa Co. Land Conservation agent] has indicated that the highest level that can be attained in the
reclamation process is to convert it to land to be used for raising corn. Since there are no reclaimed areas
in the county as a result of frac sand mining nor even in other counties, it is difficult to say what quality of
land this will be as it is reclaimed. At best, corn may be grown… but with the addition of lots and lots
of water plus fertilizers (nitrates) to allow for nutrition for growing of the crop. It may not be possible in
many places to raise corn.

The most difficult thing for the frac-sand industry will be to reclaim mined properties to meet their end use…Most of the hills that are being mined have extremely shallow topsoil as well as limited sub-soil… In addition due to the source of a large part of the materials-forested hillsides-it is expected to have a rather low ph, fertility issues, and poor moisture holding ability. It is the opinion of many of us that the end result will be a very poor stand of grass with some woody plants of very poor quality and little value on the whole for wildlife… In addition we fear that due to the loosely consolidated nature of the profile and nearness of the mine floor to the water table (3-5 feet in some cases) there will be a substantial risk of groundwater contamination from pesticides and fertilizers in these cases.

Wedron Silica uses 100 million gallons of water per hour in sand processing…the mine has
reversed the flow of the ground water…As a result of…well …poison[ing] 23 acres of my land has been devalued by the county to $1.00… five buildings are worth 40% of what they were before nine wells were poisoned in Wedron.

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…Sargent has removed 10-15% of the Ludington Dunes, to date. Our property lies 1,200 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.

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…

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 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.

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