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

Marcia Bjornerud, professor of geology
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UCS | August 27, 2013, 1:43 pm EDT
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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.

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  • The link you provide concerning the airborne silica rule (https://www.osha.gov/silica/index.html) states that OSHA is collecting comments from workers affected by the silica. Perhaps OSHA will take into account testimony from people who don’t have to work with silica even though the are -technically speaking- out of OSHA’s jurisdiction.

    • Marcia Bjornerud


      I guess it couldn’t hurt to submit a comment to OSHA about non-work related exposure to silica dust, but perhaps more importantly, the new OSHA policy can be cited as supporting evidence, and a template for monitoring, by citizens concerned about fugitive dust from quarrying operations as local communities discuss how to manage sand mining.

      Marcia B

  • R. Knopf

    I drive The Great River Road, WI hwy 35 almost every day. The mines in Maiden Rock & Bay City are not on this map. There is a large processing & rail loading facility in Maiden Rock & to say the small town has been divided by this issue would be an understatement. As a matter of scientific fact, I know some level of micron sized silica is evident on the front porch on a near by residence.

    • Marcia Bjornerud

      Hi R Knopf

      Thanks for noticing that omission. The map came from the web link in the first paragraph, by Wisconsin Watch:

      They specifically ask for help in keeping their database updated. Would you be willing to contact them with information about the Maiden Rock operations? Write to [email protected]

      Thank you!
      Marcia B