Frickity frac: what is sand mining’s impact?

At the second of three forums on frac sand mining organized by the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Nelson Institute, four interesting voices stood before another packed lecture hall. There was a representative of sand mining companies, an investigative journalist, a sociologist, and a groundwater specialist.

Each voice added context to the conversation Wisconsin is having as major energy companies move into the state. The Nelson Institute’s first forum two weeks ago, focused on why energy companies have pulled Wisconsin into the hydraulic fracturing industry: the vast amounts of a particular type of sand (frac sand) needed for fracking. This second forum sought to elucidate some of the impacts the state’s new industrial connections may have.

From bottom right, a conveyor carries sand from the crushing area to a wash plant tower to be washed and sorted by grain size at the Preferred Sands plant in Blair, Wis., on June 20, 2012. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The investigative voice: Kate Prengaman, Wisconsin Watch

Prengaman presented her research on frac sand mining to the crowd, bringing everyone up to speed on the basics of discussing Wisconsin’s newest large-scale extractive industry. She pointed out questions about the frac sand mining process where current knowledge gives insufficient answers. Questions like, since silica dust inside a sand mining facility is a known health hazard, does that extend to residents who live nearby too? And, what impact might flocculents used to extract soil particles from water have when disposed of en masse?

The sand mining company’s voice: Rich Budinger, Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association

Budinger stood in front of the audience representing four sand mining companies that are members of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association (WISA). WISA is a 2.5-month-old organization with a code of conduct all members must follow regarding environment, health, and safety standards. Budinger pointed out the direct and indirect economic impact bringing thousands of new jobs to the state would have and implied the “heavily regulated” state of sand mining in Wisconsin should be a source of confidence for those worried about the impact frac sand will have on their landscape.

The sociologist’s voice: Thomas Pearson, University of Wisconsin – Stout

Though he didn’t directly advocate for communities near new mining facilities, Pearson illuminated why many locals are worried. He went beneath the fear displayed in anti-frac sand sentiment to probe the sociological causes for such a strong reaction to the burgeoning industry. Mining is a physical activity that disrupts physical landscapes, Pearson said, but it also disrupts social landscapes. He said cutting into large swaths of local land makes a place grapple with the tough question: How do we as a community define who has a right to permanently transform the landscape? Pearson also relayed that several citizens local to the mining activities felt pressured by companies to give positive assent to their new endeavors, a pressure that only aggravated their fears, particularly fears that current regulation isn’t enough to keep their families and land healthy.

The hydrogeologist’s voice: Michael Parsen, Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey

Parsen was there to add a strictly environmental perspective to tonight’s mixture of voices. The effect large-scale frac sand mining will have on groundwater should be an important part of this discussion he stated. How close are mining efforts to the water table? Are the massive amounts of water each facility needs impacting local groundwater supplies? How will the flocculants mentioned by Prengaman be monitored and tracked in a landscape? And, what will be the long-term impacts be for an area that has been mined, in terms of how the land is changed and what amount of water the new land use requires? Parsen posed all of these questions, but the answers, of course, are facility-dependent.

Tweet posted by the Nelson Institute during the question and answer session after each of the four presented.

To see a more fine-grained play-by-play of this forum, check out my Storify: Frac sand mining impact on Wisconsin: A community forum. Kate Prengaman also storified the event.

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2 thoughts on “Frickity frac: what is sand mining’s impact?

  1. Pingback: Frackonomics: the implications of cheap gas | Curious Terrain

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