Frac sand mining extracts sand from beneath the earth’s surface for use in hydraulic fracturing—fracking—a very controversial natural gas drilling process. The use of silica sand is also extremely controversial and the effects of both fracking and silica sand extraction have been tied to significant health and environmental reactions.
Tremealeau County has issued more frac sand mining permits than any other county in Minnesota or Wisconsin in the past three years, according to The StarTribune. The county is ceasing operations to look at the potential adverse health effects on humans; the moratorium is expected to be in place for up to one year and was voted in to cease expansion of frac sand mining in that county. “I’m very pleased,” said Sally Miller, county board member and resolution author, according to The StarTribune. “This is going to slow things down and give us a chance to catch our breath.”
Those agreeing with the plan say the move allows time to consider if sand mining is harming human health, an open issue that has grown as the county has granted approval to 26 companies that have been mining and processing silica sand on 4,733 acres. “It would give the county some time to research the health issues and take a closer look,” Kevin Lien, director of Trempealeau’s Environment and Land Use Committee told The StarTribune. “Right now the public has questions that we can’t answer.” The moratorium commences on August 30th
Tremealeau County is not the only county or township that has ceased operations, at least temporarily, to review public concerns. Frac sand mining is growing in that area with over 125 mines, processing plants, and rail sites.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency indicated that, in 2010, it began receiving public inquiries concerning mine silica sand for fracking use. Southeastern and south central Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin have huge sand deposits that meet fracking specifications and mining for these deposits has been ongoing in that area for many years. New issues based on the quantity, type, and depth of mining, have been growing. Residents near the silica sand projects have contacted state and local governmental agencies over concerns about potential health risks tied with silica, such as silicosis.
A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that workers at some fracking sites are being exposed to high levels of dangerous silica, which can lead to a serious lung disease. We’ve written that NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) expressed concerns over the effects of silica on workers in the fracking industry. There are also significant concerns that this hazard extends to area residents.
Fracking uses a cocktail of fresh water, sand, and more than 500-600 chemicals that, with the use of a high-powered drill, are injected into the ground through a long, horizontal well. The purpose is to reach a shale formation that is typically about two miles below the earth’s surface. During fracking, the one major additive to fracking water is sand—silica—which is used to open small fissures in the previously tight shale formations. Sand accounts for nearly 10 percent of the mixture and fracking sand contains about 99 percent silica. In any given drilling site, upwards of three-four million pounds of silica are used.
Critics say fracking devastates the environment and contaminates groundwater and underground water aquifers; this contaminates nearby and widespread fresh water supplies. Until now, ground water contamination has been a major fracking issue; however, OSHA’s recent warning about dangerous silica levels adds another significant level to the fracking debate.
OSHA-NIOSH explained that respirable crystalline silica is that part of crystalline silica minute enough to enter the lungs’ gas-exchange regions, which can cause silicosis and has been linked to a number of cancers. Silicosis presents added complications in that its latency period is not fixed and can depend on how, and for how long, exposure occurred. OSHA says the silicosis latency period can be as short as a few months in acute overexposure situations, and up to decades for exposures considered low to moderate.
Overexposure to respirable crystalline silica has long been known to cause silicosis and has been the focus of lawsuits for years.