Wisconsin is linchpin for the fracking industry

Posted December 5th, 2014 in Blog, Featured 3 Comments »

Yes, it’s true – my state. Not because we have oil and gas. We don’t. We don’t have fossil fuels at all. Everything we burn is imported from somewhere else. We burn coal, we burn natural gas, we burn oil – but we have none of those things.

But we do have something desperately needed by the hydraulic fracking industry – we have sand. We have exactly the right kind of sand, sand needed in enormous amounts to  help frack shale rock and hold the cracks open so that the oil and gas can come to mama. What we have in abundance is crystalline silica sand, and this stuff can be lethal if breathed into our bodies [for info on health risks, visit OSHA here].

We have something else, too – a state government resting in the hands of the industry, paid for and fully delivered, and therefore a state with lax regulations, and a profound lack of interest in having regulations, to control the devastating harm that the frac sand mining industry has brought to our western counties.

Frac sand mine:  m.kenosion Howard EOG mine 2012-06-15

Frac sand mine: m.kenosion Howard EOG mine 2012-06-15

And there you have one of the finest examples of the crisis that has come to the human community on this planet – destroying its webs of life, raping and pillaging and ravaging Mother Earth, literally scraping off and gouging out her rich soils and complex and abundant eco-communities, so that certain corporations and their stockholders can make big profits in this last gasp of the fossil fueled industrial era.

Oh yeah, and for national energy independence, too. What that really means is gross dependence on a dwindling resource that is destroying the planet’s atmosphere and biosphere. How we do like that exchange? Feels like giving up one form of dependence for something far worse, doesn’t it? Keeping our addiction to our fossil fueled way of consumer life going until the drug is gone, the dealers retired on their fortunes, and one big bad withdrawal beginning to set in.

I don’t like that bargain.

Yesterday, Prof. Al Gedicks came to the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha to give a talk on frac sand mining in Wisconsin. It was entitled, “Who Pays the Cost?” Gedicks,  Emerita Professor of Sociology at UW-La Crosse, has written and lectured extensively on the history of metallic and non-metallic mining in this state. I want to just summarize a few of his main points, then add some comments at the end:

Silica sandstone was set down in our western and central counties over long geological time. The silica crystals that are ground from the stone and then washed are perfect for fracking because those little guys are tough enough to withstand enormous pressure. Silica particles are tiny – as small as 1/20th the width of a human hair – and their edges are sharp. Unlike other forms of particulate pollutions, these crystals, when inhaled, deeply embed in the lungs – f0rever – where they do a lot of damage over time. Silicosis is a lethal disease and is one of the risks of living near the mines. It has long been listed as a known carcinogen [see: Silica, Crystalline (Respirable Size), from NIH]

Without meaningful protections, a lot of silica dust is getting into the air and wafting over the homes and farms in affected communities. Rather than protect citizens, Wisconsin’s state government has a “who cares” kind of attitude towards the threats to human health. For example:

“When issuing Air Quality Permits to mining companies, the Department of Natural Resources does not include fugitive dust when determining how much the companies will increase the level of particulate matter. They also do not regularly require air monitors for either general particulate matter or, specifically, for respirable crystalline silica. Therefore, people living anywhere near mining operations do not know whether they are breathing safe or unsafe air.” [see: Concerned Chippewa Citizens]

Video: Here and Now, WPT.org –  New study examines quality of air at mining sites

While Minnesota and Iowa also have silica sandstone, Wisconsin has the mother lode making it the center for this industry, a gravitational pull that has brought many mining companies large and small to our fair state. Among the largest are Superior Silica Sands, Preferred Sands, and EOG Resources from Texas. Companies are here from all over – North Dakota, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and on and on, wherever fracking is underway.

As Gedicks noted, silica sand is used in 90% of gas wells. And the State of Wisconsin has 75% of the frac sand market in the U.S.

And what that means for my state is this: strip-mining on a grand scale.

It is not just sand that is being removed, it is the landscape of our west central counties.

In 2010, he reported, there were 10 frac sand mines in this state.  By last year, the number was 115. This year we are up to 135, while 60 more permits are pending.

Each fracking well requires an average of 2,000 tons of sand. There are over a million oil and gas wells in the U.S. now, according to FracTracker,  and, as Gedicks stated,  90% use sand to frack open the shale. Do the math.  That’s the scale we’re talking about.

Strip-mining away our landscape, and polluting the air and lungs around the sites, are not the only devastating impacts of the industry. There is also the matter of this other thing we need for life – water. Once mined, the sand is washed to remove the fine particles. Huge amounts of water are required, mixed with highly toxic chemicals. Gedicks says one well requires millions of gallons a year. To get this amount of water pumped out of the ground, companies get permits to dig high capacity wells. This poses a grave threat to the region as groundwater flows diminish.

Why would a state allow such a thing? Well, it helps if industry has been able to buy the state government, which is apparently the case here. The Department of Natural Resources does not regulate this industry in any meaningful fashion. Gedicks noted that the DNR only regulates individual wells. It does not account for cumulative impacts on groundwater – astounding when you realize how that natural system works, how interconnected it all is, how if you take from here, you are also taking from there. What this means for farms, towns, cities – well, no studies are being done, so who knows?

Credit: Jeff Falk of the Reglin & Hesch mine near Arcadia, WI. Source: Frac Sand Frisbee

Credit: Jeff Falk of the Reglin & Hesch mine near Arcadia, WI. Source: Frac Sand Frisbee

Among the chemicals used for washing the sands is acrylamide, a powerful neurotoxin. “According to Medical Doctor Gabe Mirkin, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) ‘acrylamide can cause nerve damage in humans, such as loss of feeling, and loss of muscle control.’ It can help bring on ‘diabetes, blindness, deafness, heart attack, strokes, and kidney damage.’ Also it can cause cancer, cataracts, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and birth defects. California’s Safe Drinking Water & Toxic Enforcement act of 1986 (Proposition 65) lists acrylamide among 800 chemicals that pose a risk of causing cancer or reproductive harm.” [Source: The Frac Sand Frisbee].

Sounds like something you wouldn’t want in the environment where you live.

Gedicks reports that there are no drinking water standards in the State of Wisconsin for chemicals used in fracking.

Adding to the water concerns, Gedicks notes that bedrock sandstone is a water filter, reducing pollutants to groundwater. Removing it removes the filter. Sandstone is also water-bearing, playing a crucial role in the recharge of the aquifer. Without it, rather than a filter, you end up with a sieve, and the pollutants pour in.

Accidents happen, of course, as in any industry. But in this case, there is no meaningful monitoring on the part of the government. Accidents are not found by regulators, but by citizens. Then the DNR comes in to have a look. That look has resulted in 80-90% of mines inspected by the DNR found to be in noncompliance with their permits, which usually results in a small fine that amounts to pocket change for these companies.

The feds are of no use here either. Gedicks told us that neither the DNR nor the EPA have set standards for “respirable crystalline silica,” even though it is a known carcinogen.

Meanwhile, as for the toxic water issue, well, our old friend Dick Cheney took care of that when Bush was first elected president. In secret meetings with industry, he managed to get the fracking industry exempted from the Clean Water Act. What that means is that the EPA is not allowed to do anything at all. For his old company, Halliburton, an early player in the fracking boom, this was a very profitable maneuver.

Video: Sand Land

I could go on. I could write about what is happening to this lovely rural part of the state, to communities and families whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed, or about mega-billionaire Warren Buffet and his BNSF rail company, which is making huge profits as the largest shipper of frac sand, or about the collapse of democracy in this state, or about what it means to live in a state where the government has turned power over to some of the most ecologically destructive industries in the nation – industries like this one that are allowed to write the regulations under which they will operate and give them to legislators to pass them into law.

It is a woeful and tragic story. It has no good end, because, like the blown-away mountains in Appalachia, it is landscape destroyed forever.

For a fossil fueled consumer civilization that has no future. For an industry that has no future. Indeed, even economic experts give it 10-15 years at most.

But if there is any good in this, it is that it has brought so many communities into a fierce awareness of the places they love, of their connections with that landscape, and a proper fear for the future of their children, of their health and well-being. Extraordinary work is going on, with very few resources, to try to push back.

And here is why that work is so significant, as Gedicks made clear. Wisconsin has 75% of the frac sand market in the U.S. The industry is completely dependent on our sand in order to operate.

So what happens if a movement really takes off here? Let’s compare this to the Keystone XL pipeline battle. While opposition has so far successfully impeded its completion, the industry responded by simply building vast pipeline networks without it until it isn’t really needed anymore.

But fracking needs our sand. I don’t pretend that there is any potential looming yet to bring the pressure of the anti-fracking, anti-pipeline movements to western Wisconsin, but it sure is nice to dream sometimes. And so, you know, I’m just putting that dream out there.

If we want to stop fracking, or really slow it down, get after the frac sand mining industry, an essential part of its diet, without which it cannot survive.

by Margaret Swedish


Some examples of the burgeoning work of grassroots groups in western Wisconsin:

Concerned Chippewa Citizens
Midwest Environmental Advocates
 Frac Sand Industry Awareness in Wisconsin – on Facebook
Crawford Stewardship Project
Save Our Town Whitehall – on Facebook



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3 Responses

  1. Irv Balto

    The choke point to crude and sand transport is the rails. Regulators are captured by corporate interests and only direct action will stop this train.

  2. La Mer

    Thank you, Margaret. I also suggest the dvd “The Price of Sand” and offer additional thoughts about two scary Enbridge tar sands pipelines that split in Superior, Wisconsin…then one heads underground through our state and down to Illinois and the other goes across the Michigan UP and then hides underwater parallel to the Mackinac bridge crossing the strait between Lakes Michigan and Huron and again into Michigan where the Kalamazoo River’s life was destroyed by the spill from an Enbridge diluted-bitumen pipeline. I know we who have chosen to be here have a spiritual responsibility to stop this fracsand mining and these tar sand pipelines, as G-Tac was halted…Wisconsin is the place and now is the time to gather strength and not give up, but join this Lakota grandmother:
    (if you’ve time, watch to the very end), and see this Ted Talk about tar sands by photographer Garth Lenz:
    and peruse these facts:
    (“Because of the more viscous makeup of dilbit, it must be pumped at higher pressure and at higher temperatures than conventional crude oil. Additional toxic chemicals are added to allow the product flow. Some sand remains in dilbit. A combination of these attributes has led some engineers to compare dilbit to “fast, hot, and toxic liquid sandpaper.” Add this to the fact that 41 percent of the pipelines were built to carry conventional crude oil in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The alarming speed at which tar sands are being added to this pipeline network raise legitimate questions about the likelihood of many more accidents. The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) notes that pipelines in the upper Midwest that routinely carry oil from tar sands have spilled 3.6 times more oil per pipeline mile than the U.S. average.”): http://www.oilandwaterdontmix.org/the_bigger_picture

  3. Margaret

    The Price of Sand is an excellent resource, yes. I own it and have shared it. Just so you know, I’ve done a lot of work raising awareness about the pipeline networks through Wisconsin, as well as the oil tanker trains. We have become a major hub for the transhipment of oil through the Midwest to refineries in Superior, Whiting IN, and south.

    The Garth Lenz talk is also excellent. I have been to the Alberta tar sands in 2013 and it was a life-altering experience for sure. His visuals are stunning.

    Thank you for the comment, the resource recommendations, and for sharing your concerns about our precious Mother Earth. I am moved by the growing number of people engaging a new healing relationship in their bioregions. Let’s hope we are doing this in time…