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40 Percent Of Wisconsin ‘Frac Sand’ Producers Violated Environmental Rules, Study Says

By Zahra Hirji, InsideClimate News (MCT)

More than 40 percent of frac sand producers in Wisconsin have broken state environmental rules in recent years, according to a new report.

This isn’t the case of a “few bad apples” disregarding the law, said Bobby King, an organizer who contributed to the report by the Land Stewardship Project, an advocacy group.

“It’s an industry that’s willing to routinely violate rules that are designed to protect communities, protect air quality, protect water quality,” he said.

Wisconsin is the nation’s top producer of silica sand, a key ingredient used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The state is home to 135 active mines, processing and transport facilities. That’s up from only seven facilities in 2010.

The immense growth in the industry has been a boon for the state’s economy, providing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in new development. But there’s a growing backlash among citizens concerned about the health, environmental, sound and light pollution of these large industrial facilities. Opponents also charge that the existing rules aren’t strong enough, and enforcement of those rules is minimal.

The report, released Nov. 6, exposes some of the industry’s growing pains. The Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota-based nonprofit, compiled every instance in which Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) took “substantial regulatory action” to get companies that mine or process sand to stop breaking the rules between 2011 and 2013 — the main period of industry growth in the state.

The DNR declined to comment on the report.

When a company operates without the right permit or violates its permit, for example, the DNR generally issues what’s called a “stage one” violation. This means regulators send companies a letter telling them to fix a certain problem by a set date.

If a company doesn’t take action, the DNR follows up with a citation for a stage two violation. This includes another warning letter, followed by a request for a meeting to discuss a plan of action.

Twenty of the state’s active 47 frac sand companies, or 43 percent, have been cited for stage two violations, mainly for water issues. Several companies, for example, improperly stored sand or waste from mining or processing that leaked during storm events, sometimes into streams and creeks.

If companies still don’t comply, the DNR moves forward with the final response: a stage three violation that usually involves a fine. The agency issued these citations to 13 companies, or nearly 30 percent of the industry. Fines could be as low as a few hundred dollars. The highest fine of $200,000 was levied in 2012 against Preferred Sands.

The report drew on media accounts about the industry, quoting Trempealeau County official Kevin Lien: “Citations are pretty much ineffective for this industry.” Lein did not respond for comment to InsideClimate News.

A few companies still didn’t react, and the DNR referred those cases to the state’s Department of Justice.

Companies have “done the calculation” and decided it’s cheaper to break the rules and pay a fine rather than actually change the way they do things, said King, from the Land Stewardship Project.

The report also revealed companies’ attempts to skirt silica sand mining bans through land annexation and local officials’ efforts to greenlight projects from which they stood to profit.

The president of the trade group Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, Rich Budinger, disagrees. “There are many responsible operators,” he told InsideClimate News. He added that some of the companies called out in the report are “new” and “inexperienced” and that’s a result of the tremendous growth of the industry in the last four years.

“Although it’s a fairly biased report,” he said, it’s important to point out that it shows “there’s a system out there that’s working and holding these companies accountable.”

The report focused on violations cited on the state level but noted that counties could — and often have — pursued action on their own. Counties may have rules that go above and beyond those at the state level. This means it’s possible an even greater percentage of the industry is failing to meet Wisconsin’s environmental regulations.

According to Patricia Popple, a frac sand activist in Chippewa Falls, officials mostly take action only if a citizen reports a problem. And, she said, “there’s a tremendous amount more complaints by citizens than what’s possibly recognized” and responded to.

“There’s no boundaries to the pollution that’s created” by this industry, said Popple.

Photo: Carol Mitchell via Flickr

Frac Sand Boom: South Dakota Is Latest State To Try To Cash In

By Zahra Hirji, InsideClimate News

Oil and gas drillers are salivating over silica sand, a key ingredient in fracking operations, and their increasing demand for the stuff has the nation’s industrial sand operators seeing green.
Now, a new player — and an unlikely one — is on the horizon: South Dakota is poised to cash in on the frac sand boom.

South Dakota Proppants, LLC, a fledgling frac sand company, plans to build the state’s first silica mine under a sprawling 960-acre site in the state’s largest forest, Black Hills.
Silica sand is incredibly strong and round, the best material to blast down drilling wells to open bedrock and release oil and gas. One well can use up to 10,000 tons of frac sand during its lifespan.

The demand for U.S. silica is at an all-time high, and there’s no end in sight. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the sand and gravel industry was worth $2.6 billion in 2013, up from about $830 million in 2009 — and frac sand drove that growth. Meanwhile, the price of a ton of sand has dramatically increased, from approximately $35 to $50. The USGS data are voluntarily submitted by companies and may underestimate the industry’s magnitude.

The proposed mega-facility, a mine, processing and transport hub rolled into one, is strategically located within 300 miles of three major oil- and gas-rich shale rock formations: North Dakota’s Bakken, Colorado’s Niobrara, and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. If built, the facility will make South Dakota the latest state with marginal oil and gas reserves to profit from the nation’s hydraulic fracturing drilling boom.

SDP says the proposed $65 million facility will generate one million tons of sand a year.

Today, sand often arrives at Midwest drilling sites by rail from Wisconsin or Minnesota, two of the industry’s leading states. By using trucks instead of rail, SDP can save more than $50 per ton of sand, said Patric Galvin, the founder and owner of South Dakota Proppants.

South Dakota officials and companies have wanted to enter the frac sand industry for years but their sand’s poor quality has held them back. State geologists have sampled dozens of potential sites for the right sand and consistently come up short.

But they missed a spot.

“This particular mine site is very unique,” Galvin said. “We think that the same sand type (from Wisconsin) exists in this particular formation.”

The company’s sand quality tests confirmed their resource meets the American Petroleum Institute’s standards.

Wisconsin’s frac sand development has injected millions of dollars and thousands of jobs into the state. But it has also stirred public concern over unknown health and environmental effects and inadequate regulations, propelling this state into the national fight over the safety of fracking and related industries.

Frac sand mining releases into the air tiny dust particles invisible to the naked eye and sized at 4 microns or smaller. If inhaled, these jagged crystals can enter the bloodstream or lungs and cause respiratory problems including silicosis. Studies of this sand’s effects on industry workers have prompted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to try to boost its protections. However, little is known about how much of this sand is blowing into surrounding communities.

South Dakota has no silica-specific air standards — meaning it doesn’t monitor for it. Once mining starts, South Dakota will have to rely on EPA’s general small particle standards, which do not adequately cover the silica dust risk, according to many health experts.

Patricia Popple, an anti-silica sand activist in Wisconsin, is skeptical that South Dakota has strong enough regulations. In an email to InsideClimate News, Popple pointed to her home state as an example: “Wisconsin surely is lacking in expertise and it has taken them six years to get a grip on the multiple complications.”

According to SDP’s Galvin, the company’s mine “is in the middle of nowhere.”

“The remoteness of this facility is really appealing in comparison to the Wisconsin sand mines that are interspersed more densely in the population,” he said.

The mine site is located in a national forest, around 14 miles from the nearest community, Hill City (pop. 1,000). A handful of families live within a few miles of the proposed site.

One local concern is that the facility’s steady stream of trucks will clog up and damage the region’s narrow roads. Silica dust can fly off the truck’s bed — a big concern in the town of Winona, Minn., where two air monitors were installed in January to measure sand-related truck emissions.

If approved, SDP’s facility won’t be operational until 2016. Before then, the company has to complete an environmental impact study for the site, as well as submit several permits, including one with the U.S. Forest Service. The public also has a chance to weigh in. If the facility is approved, SDP will need another six to eight months to build it.

Photo: danielfoster437 via Flickr

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Minnesota Town Caught In ‘Frac Sand’ Mining Rush Wants Answers On Pollution

By Zahra Hirji, InsideClimate News

How much dangerous dust is being kicked into the air from the mounds of frac sand hauled daily across the southern Minnesota town of Winona?

Looking for answers, the community got the state to install in January a pollution monitor for crystalline silica, or frac sand — the first in Minnesota not financed by industry. Located on a building above a major intersection for sand trucks bound for fracking fields, it’s been collecting data ever since.

The state Pollution Control Agency (PCA) said the data would be released in March.

But because of delays in finding a lab to process all of it, Winonans aren’t any closer to answering their question.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Jane Cowgill, co-founder of the Winona-based grass-roots group Citizens Against Silica Mining. “You can see sand blowing around in the air.”

A main problem is that there are no labs in Minnesota that handle this type of analysis — a sign of how quickly the Midwest frac sand industry has exploded in recent years to serve America’s oil and gas drilling boom.

Instead, the PCA must choose from a handful of labs that offer to take on the project. There are only about a dozen capable in the United States. “We’re going to push to get moving quickly. … I don’t have a firm timeline,” said Frank Kohlasch, manager of the air assessment section of the PCA, which paid for the monitors and is charged with data collection and analysis.

Minnesota and its neighbor Wisconsin hold vast reservoirs of pure silica sand, a necessary ingredient in the fracking process that has been implicated in silicosis, a lung disease. The blasted sand creates and holds open cracks in dense rock formations to releases oil or gas. It can take up to 10,000 tons of sand to frack a single well during its lifetime, and there are roughly 50 new wells being drilled in the United States every day.

The number of sand mines, processing, and transport facilities between the two states has swelled in recent years to more than 100, from less than 20 in 2010. In Winona each day about 100 trucks carry thousands of tons of sand across the college town. The sand is then loaded onto rail or barge and sent to North Dakota and other states.

“The demand for sand is going up and up and up. It’s a gold rush,” Cowgill said.

Silica dust exposure kills hundreds of industrial sand workers a year, according to federal data, but there is little data tracking the threat it poses to nearby communities. What data there is comes from industry.

In Wisconsin, local governments tried to monitor airborne silica sand, but they’ve sustained several setbacks due to government and industry pushback.

Winona is the first local government in the nation to monitor air pollution that may be escaping from the sand piles trucked through town. Approved by Winona’s City Council last fall after concerns were raised about unknown health effects, the vote was hailed as a victory for activists regionally.

Two air pollution sensors were installed. The most critical one measures concentrations of particulate matter up to 4 micrometers in diameter, or PM 4, 20 times smaller than a grain of beach sand and small enough to penetrate lung tissue and enter the bloodstream. The dust accumulates in the monitor’s filter and samples get collected over a 24-hour period every six days. Eventually, they’ll be sent to a special lab for what is called “speciation” analysis to determine how much of the material is frac sand.

The other monitor measures finer PM 2.5 particles emitted not just from frac sand but car emissions and other industries. This data is collected hourly and requires little extra analysis. It’s already available on the MPCA’s Air Quality Index website. According to Kohlasch of the state pollution control agency, Winona’s hourly 2.5 PM data does not appear abnormal.

Photo: danielfoster437 via Flickr

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