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