A Change We Didn’t See Coming: Hydraulic Fracturing and Sand Mining in Wisconsin

August 27, 2013
Marcia Bjornerud
Professor of geology Dept. of Geology, Lawrence University

If someone had told me 10 years ago that the rural landscape just west of my home in Appleton would be stripped down and shipped to states throughout the country, I never would have believed it. In fact, no one here in Wisconsin could have imagined that there would ever be much industrial demand for the honey-colored Cambrian sandstones that crop out in a wide swath across the middle of the state. There were a few quarries that supplied sand for foundry molds, but since foundries can reuse sand many times, these local operations had little effect on the landscape. Wisconsin’s sandstones had only two major ‘uses’: acting as groundwater aquifers and defining the shape of the distinctive chimney rocks and castellated mounds of the state’s scenic, never-glaciated Driftless Area.

The fracking boom’s far-reaching effects

Image courtesy of Flickr user Carol Mitchell.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Carol Mitchell.

The advent of hydraulic fracturing tight shale formations for gas and oil changed all that. Suddenly Wisconsin’s golden sandstones were like gold. These ancient beach sands have just the right grain size and an almost perfectly spherical shape to make ideal ‘proppant’ in the “fracking fluids” used in the extraction process. Sand keeps the tiny fractures created by hydraulic fracturing open, a critical prerequisite for extracting hydrocarbons. Scores of frack sand companies sprouted up around Wisconsin overnight, offering struggling farmers top dollar for their land.  Much like the communities where hydraulic fracturing itself is occurring, local governments in Wisconsin that previously only worried about snow plowing have found themselves unprepared to deal with managing and monitoring large-scale industrial activity.

A changed landscape

As of April 2013, more than 125 frac-sand operations were active in Wisconsin (and several dozen more in adjacent Minnesota). Over the past 5 years, many billions of tons of Wisconsin sand has been shipped out of state and is now deep underground in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma and North Dakota. You can follow the rapid shift from what was a rural, untouched landscape to a growing web of sand mines right down the middle of Wisconsin here.

WisconsinWatch’s frack-sand industry map.

WisconsinWatch’s frack-sand industry map.

Removing frac-sands requires strip mining; everything goes — vegetation, soil, bedrock, the very topography of the place. The sandstone must also be disaggregated and washed before being loaded into trucks and train cars, and this consumes vast amounts of water. Many operations run 24 hours a day, creating noise and light pollution in previously rural areas. Another concern is the silica dust that that quarry employees are exposed to. Overexposure to this breathable crystalline silica causes an irreversible lung disease called silicosis and other health concerns.

A promising change, but impacts remain

Last week, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s long-awaited airborne silica rule was released. The proposed rule is a step in the right direction. But unfortunately, the new rule provides no protection for local citizens from ‘fugitive’ silica dust escaping from the quarries and trucks. And some research suggests residents may face health risks from such exposure. For the Wisconsin communities that have already been denuded by the rapacious demand for sand, the rule has come far too late.

This overdue rule is an inadequate but encouraging move toward better public health policies around oil and gas development. It also serves as a call for scientists, policy makers, and concerned citizens to work together around local concerns around fracking operations. As the winner of the “UCS Science Network’s Science and Democracy Forum Sweepstakes”, I was able attend the Los Angeles forum on fracking in person and listen in on the deliberations of the “Probing the State of Science on Unconventional Oil and Gas” Working Group. In hearing the participants’ various expertise, research findings, and perspectives, it became abundantly clear there is still much to be done together — government, media, researchers, residents — in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the wide range of potential fracking-related effects. Such understanding is necessary for us to make informed decisions. Only then can we find the best ways to protect our communities’ health, welfare, and the environment—from my neighborhood in Wisconsin to someone’s backyard well in Pennsylvania.

Marcia Bjornerud is a professor of Geology at Lawrence University and a member of the UCS Science Network. For her 20 years of teaching, mentoring, and research contributions, Marcia was awarded the 2011 Outstanding Educator Award from the Association of Women Geoscientists. Marcia is also committed to taking science-based learning beyond the classroom and into the community, with more than 10 years’ participation in community science outreach programs for Fox Valley elementary and middle school students, as well as various forums and presentations at local community organizations.

The UCS Science Network is an inclusive community of more than 25,000 scientists, engineers, economists, and other experts, focused on changing the world for the better. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the authors alone.