In Ste. Genevieve County, Mo., about 100 residents gathered for a town hall meeting in 2013 to discuss a new frac sand mine in their backyard. Officials from the county, state and mining company attended to answer questions residents might have.
Neighbors peppered the panel with questions: How will the mine’s sand dust be regulated? How will you prevent it from getting into our lungs? How will the traffic and explosions affect my health, my property and the ecosystem? Concerns about breathing in the microscopic sand particles, which could lead to silicosis in the lungs, abounded.
Jane Hardy, who lives about 1000 feet from the mine, said she wasn’t satisfied with the answers.
“I’m still not going to be able to walk my dogs. I’m not going to be able to ride my horses. They made that very clear. So I don’t feel any better,” she said.
For the past few years, frac sand mines in the Midwest have been popping up right alongside hydraulic fracturing operations, or fracking. Frac sand is sold to oil and gas companies to use to prop open cracks made by drilling. It allows the collection of oil and gas. But an uproar of opposition based on health concerns is spreading down through the region into Missouri.
Many attendees at the Missouri meeting referenced the tumultuous nature of the frac sand industry in states north of Missouri. But ultimately, the Missouri mine was issued a permit. The opposing neighbors now are considering legal options.
Midwest frac sand industry burgeoning
Frac sand mines started blossoming in the Midwest around 2008. Since then, the sand industry in the Midwest has grown exponentially compared to any other region in the U.S.
Thomas Dolley is a silica specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Last year I believe natural gas was selling $2 a btu,” Dolley said. “Now it’s up to $4. It’s going to fluctuate with the price of natural gas. When the price goes up, you’re going to see more drilling, you’re going to see more production, thus you’re going to need more sand.”
Graph caption: About 57 percent of silica sand is used by fracking companies and 88 percent of that frac sand comes from the Midwest. Click on the years to see change over time. Data from USGS. Credit: Kristofor Husted/Scott Pham
Neighbor states knee deep in sand controversy
“There are probably 65 mines and processing plants in my district,’ she said. “There are 100 in the state. There are 28 in just one county.”
Vinehout says community members and environmental groups are concerned about sand dust getting into the lungs of neighbors, among other issues. Mine owners say they use techniques like wetting the sand or waiting to break down the sand into smaller pieces once it’s away from the site to prevent sand dust from flying into the air.
Still, local governments have been passing moratoria and stricter regulations on frac sand mines to curb the growth of the industry. But that’s not sitting well with some of the Republican legislators who want the jobs. Vinehout, a Democrat, says that’s where the problem lies.
“I do think that we’ve seen such an explosion in Wisconsin partly because of the response of the state government – which the attitude is: We're all open for business. We want you to come here and we're not going to put a lot of money into enforcement,” she said.
In Minnesota, residents have watched their next door neighbors battle over permitting these mines for years. In turn, they’ve been more proactive in their regulation of frac sand mines to avoid escalating into a political warzone.
Concerns grow in Missouri
Missouri has a small number of frac sand operations compared to these other states, but it’s still causing concern. A mine in southeast Missouri recently shut down in the midst of a lawsuit with dozens of residents. Republican state Senator Gary Romine says he’s keeping an eye on the sand mines in his own district after hearing concerns from his constituents.
“They’ve seen the health issues and questions that have been brought up and only time can tell how much of an effect this fine sediment from this sand will have on the health in the area,” he said.
Scientific data on the effects of these mines may be right around the corner, though. University of Iowa researchers were recently awarded a grant to study the public health effects of sand mines. The hope is community members and politicians then will have more concrete answers to help guide policy and regulation.