The Enviro Disaster You Know Nothing About: The Eco-Devastating Quest for "Frac Sand" in Rural America
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
If the world can be seen in a grain of sand, watch out. As Wisconsinites are learning, there’s money (and misery) in sand -- and if you’ve got the right kind, an oil company may soon be at your doorstep.
March in Wisconsin used to mean snow on the ground, temperatures so cold that farmers worried about their cows freezing to death. But as I traveled around rural townships and villages in early March to interview people about frac-sand mining, a little-known cousin of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” daytime temperatures soared to nearly 80 degrees -- bizarre weather that seemed to be sending a meteorological message.
In this troubling spring, Wisconsin’s prairies and farmland fanned out to undulating hills that cradled the land and its people. Within their embrace, the rackety calls of geese echoed from ice-free ponds, bald eagles wheeled in the sky, and deer leaped in the brush. And for the first time in my life, I heard the thrilling warble of sandhill cranes.
Yet this peaceful rural landscape is swiftly becoming part of a vast assembly line in the corporate race for the last fossil fuels on the planet. The target: the sand in the land of the cranes.
Five hundred million years ago, an ocean surged here, shaping a unique wealth of hills and bluffs that, under mantles of greenery and trees, are sandstone. That sandstone contains a particularly pure form of crystalline silica. Its grains, perfectly rounded, are strong enough to resist the extreme pressures of the technology called hydraulic fracturing, which pumps vast quantities of that sand, as well as water and chemicals, into ancient shale formations to force out methane and other forms of “natural gas.”
That sand, which props open fractures in the shale, has to come from somewhere. Without it, the fracking industry would grind to a halt. So big multinational corporations are descending on this bucolic region to cart off its prehistoric sand, which will later be forcefully injected into the earth elsewhere across the country to produce more natural gas. Geology that has taken millions of years to form is now being transformed into part of a system, a machine, helping to drive global climate change.
“The valleys will be filled… the mountains and hills made level"
Boom times for hydraulic fracturing began in 2008 when new horizontal-drilling methods transformed an industry formerly dependent on strictly vertical boring. Frac-sand mining took off in tandem with this development.
“It's huge,” said a U.S. Geological Survey mineral commodity specialist in 2009. “I've never seen anything like it, the growth. It makes my head spin." That year, from all U.S. sources, frac-sand producers used or sold over 6.5 million metric tons of sand -- about what the Great Pyramid of Giza weighs. Last month, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Senior Manager and Special Projects Coordinator Tom Woletz said corporations were hauling at least 15 million metric tons a year from the state’s hills.
By July 2011, between 22 and 36 frac-sand facilities in Wisconsin were either operating or approved. Seven months later, said Woletz, there were over 60 mines and 45 processing (refinement) plants in operation. “By the time your article appears, these figures will be obsolete,” claims Pat Popple, who in 2008 founded the first group to oppose frac-sand mining, Concerned Chippewa Citizens (now part of The Save the Hills Alliance).
Jerry Lausted, a retired teacher and also a farmer, showed me the tawny ridges of sand that delineated a strip mine near the town of Menomonie where he lives. “If we were looking from the air,” he added, “you’d see ponds in the bottom of the mine where they dump the industrial waste water. If you scan to the left, you’ll see the hills that are going to disappear.”