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Communities at Risk: New report looks at national scope of frac sand mining

Oct 07, 2014

Frac sand mining operations - interactive mapNews outlets from across the country have been calling attention to a recent report by Boston Action Research, a project of Civil Society Institute, that puts the proliferation of Wisconsin’s frac sand mining into a national perspective.

“Communities at Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest” (PDF) is the first study to take a comprehensive look at how mining for the natural resource that plays a key role in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for domestic oil and shale gas drilling currently impacts the tri-state area of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. The report also looks at what states have silica sand and may be facing similar health, environmental and regulatory concerns if the demand for frac sand continues to increase.

Midwest Environmental Advocates advised the report’s writers and the Environmental Working Group contributed valuable maps and data. And from our vantage point in Wisconsin, we know the information won’t come as a big surprise to people living near mines who are worried about their health from constant exposure to silica dust, a known carcinogen, or to those who have seen streams they’ve fished in since childhood polluted with contaminated runoff from industrial mine sites.

But the report’s value is in its big-picture look at whether local and state governments are regulating frac sand mining and how the mining industry’s impacts pass their costs of operation onto local communities. The Environmental Working Group also used maps and census data to show that there are around 58,000 people living within a half mile of a permitted mine or processing facility. That number grows to 162,000 people living within a mile of a frac sand mining site. While other states such as Minnesota and California have passed laws that protect residents from silica dust, Wisconsin's air quality protections have remained stagnant.

“When a frac sand mine operates in Wisconsin, it does so without accountability or payment for the damage it causes to the health of people living amidst endless dust, noise, industrial lighting, road damage and dramatic reductions in property values,” said Midwest Environmental Advocates Executive Director Kim Wright. “Silica dust is a known carcinogen, yet people young and old are being exposed to this dust with little or no oversight by the Department of Natural Resources, the state agency charged with protecting public health and the environment.

“Meanwhile, local governments don’t have the resources for science-based reviews of complex mining proposals and are often threatened by industry attorneys to approve them or be sued. It’s a sad day when special interest influence overshadows the rights of citizens to breathe clean air and drink clean water. We believe there are good men and women in the DNR who no longer have the autonomy to make science-based decisions to meet public health standards.”

The report comes out on the heels of an announcement of a new citizen petition to the state Natural Resources Board to ask the DNR for a strategic analysis of the frac sand mining industry in Wisconsin. The Boston Action Research study demonstrates why a comprehensive view of this kind of mining is long overdue in the state that exports about two-thirds of sand used in fracking.

“Every time I visit western Wisconsin I hear stories of how people are impacted around the clock from over 800 trucks a day accelerating and braking past their homes, to lights and noise that keep them awake at night and the constant exposure to dust so dangerous it would require regulation if their homes were covered by work place protections,” said Wright, “the stress alone of living amidst this industry is damaging to health. It is unacceptable that this industry is not required to follow existing laws, is allowed to externalize costs to its neighbors and all while making record profits.”

In Wisconsin in particular, communities are bearing the costs of inadequate regulatory oversight while the frac sand industry is making money hand over fist. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, political contributions of the industry increased 1200% between 2007 and 2012. Fossil fuel special interests seem to have overshadowed the needs of families in harm’s way with regard to the politically controlled DNR leadership. Yet over and over, DNR staff tell people that they don’t have the resources or authority to address citizen concerns.

The costs to the health of families living near frac sand mining, to our environment and to our quality of life have to be taken into consideration in order for the DNR to use its authority to regulate this industry. A comprehensive strategic analysis of the impact of frac sand mining is essential for our state’s natural resources protection agency to begin the important work of putting balanced, science-based policy that protects the lives and livelihoods of citizens over politics and the profits of out-of-state mining companies. That's why we are asking our state to tell us the true cost of sand. Learn more about the citizen petition on the True Cost of Sand webpage: sign the petition if you agree.

“The good news is the number of ordinary people who are stepping up to run for local office, to organize and educate their neighbors and to fight back against powerful interests is steadily increasing,” said Wright. “Ordinary people are the only group who’ve reliably looked out for the rights of future generations because we are powered by love and duty, not by the dark money that fuels the decline of effective government that used to work for all of us.”


The report made the news across the country. Read more about the issue in the LA Times, Northeast Public Radio, The Capital Times, and Cedar Rapids IA's Gazette. Midwest Environmental Advocates staff were also guests on A Public Affair on WORT-FM 89.9 community radio in Madison as well as the Joy Cardin Show on Wisconsin Public Radio statewide to discuss frac sand mining in Wisconsin.

/ tagged: government, rural, air, mining, land, frac sand, frac, frack