Ryan Schuessler

Wisconsin locals fear dust from mines for fracking sand even as boom wanes

There is little data on how dangerous frac sand mining is, and activists are calling for more research and regulation

BLOOMER, Wis. — Victoria Trinko has spent nearly every day of her life in the slice of Western Wisconsin her father bought in 1936. For decades the view out her front window was unchanging.

Except for the mountainous pile of white sand sitting at the mine a quarter-mile down the road. That’s new.

“That particular mine started in July 2011,” Trinko, 69, said. “By April of the next year, I had developed a raspy voice. I was wheezing. Sore throat.” She said her doctor later diagnosed her with asthma resulting from her environment. Her cows have started coughing, too, she said.

Five years ago, you could count the number of frac sand mines in Wisconsin — which extract and purify the fine sand used in hydraulic fracking — on one hand. Today there are 129 facilities that mine, process, and ship Wisconsin’s frac sand, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The majority of them are concentrated in just a few counties near the city of Eau Claire.

There are 129 mining facilities in Wisconsin.
Ryan Schuessler

The mining boom brought a much-needed economic boost to rural areas grappling with unemployment, but not without stirring up controversy. Some residents point to the mines — many of which have the mountainous piles of sand sitting in the open — as the source of dust that has lead to their respiratory problems.

The market has slowed down due to lower oil prices, and many are calling the boom a bust. When there’s less hydraulic fracking, the need for the sand drops. Of the 129 mining facilities, only 85 are active, according to the state Department of Natural Resources website. But the area’s citizen activists say the fight isn’t over yet. The piles of sand remain, and tests continue to show air quality in the region is not up to World Health Organization safety standards. Rumors of new mines continues to spread throughout the area and many fear that things will be just as bad — if not worse — as soon as the market picks back up again.

“When nothing’s happening people don’t get concerned,” said Ken Schmitt, a Chippewa County farmer. “Now’s the time to be concerned and get your house in order because the industry will come back in some way shape or form.”

Born out of the hydraulic fracking boom — where water, sand, and chemicals are pumped into the ground to break apart rock and release oil or natural gas — Wisconsin is now the nation’s leading producer of frac sand.

The boom happened so fast that the state wasn’t even tracking the number of mines and processing facilities in operation at first. County and municipal governments maintain much of the control over the mines, though the state Department of Natural Resources issues water and air quality permits.

Crystalline silica — which can be released into the air during frac sand mining — is a carcinogen and can cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to death, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

As required by their state permits, companies mining for frac sand are supposed to have measures in place to limit so-called “fugitive” dust — sand from a facility that becomes airborne. One such measure is “watering,” or spraying the piles with water to keep airborn dust low. Driving through western Wisconsin — where the piles of sand are visible from the road — one can see the wind blowing dust off the piles.

“You’ll see a lot of sand on cars,” said Pat Popple, a Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, resident and anti-mining activist. “If the winds are in the right direction I’ll see it on my car.”

“There are adequate and appropriate regulations to deal with that, so it’s an enforcement issue,” said Rich Budinger, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association. “I can tell you right now that all WISA members are responsible mining operations that are very closely managing and mitigating any issues not only on property, but off property.”

Residents say the state does not do enough to regulate the frac mining industry.
Ryan Schuessler

A requirement for WISA membership is proof that a company is making a positive impact on nearby communities, and that members adhere to a set of best practices, Budinger said.

“I would hope that would be the case,” Budinger added when asked if the same could be said about the industry as a whole. WISA represents just four companies operating in the state. There are nearly 50 industrial sand companies operating in Wisconsin, according to data on the Department of Natural Resources website, ranging from local operations to energy conglomerates.

“One mine here and there wasn’t the end of the world,” said Schmitt, a Republican who made a point of distancing himself from environmentalists. “A good share of these people are right or center and don’t like these sand mines. It’s not a blue or red issue.”

He added: “The administration has to change. The Republican Party has to go back to what it was or the Democrats have to take over.”

Popple and other residents say the state isn’t doing enough to monitor the mines. Roberta Walls, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Industrial Sand Sector Specialist, declined to comment for this report. According to a presentation she provided in place of a comment, the state had only fully completed 68 compliance inspections out of the state’s 129 facilities as of June 2015.

“They don’t have enough people,” Popple said of the Department of Natural Resources, which has been routinely cut under Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. “They simply don’t have enough people to go around and oversee [the mines].”

While the state does not specifically monitor crystalline silica, the DNR does compile data on air quality in the region, measuring the number of airborne particles that are 10 micrometers in diameter — referred to as PM10. Data show that western Wisconsin’s PM10 levels tend to be below the federal safety level of 150 micrograms per cubic meter of air — sometimes peaking at 100. However, The World Health Organization standard for PM10 is 20, and PM10 levels near Wisconsin sand mines hover around 15 to 40 micrograms per cubic meter of air. 

A 2015 study that looked at PM4 levels near four EOG Resources sand mines — a Texas-based company formerly known as Enron Oil and Gas — found normal air quality levels. The results, according to the DNR, showed that crystalline silica levels within PM4 concentrations were within expected background levels and in line with State of California measures, one of the few states that have a safety standard for crystalline silica.

Less monitored are the levels of PM2.5 — the smallest particles that can become airborne more easily and travel farther. Preliminary research from Crispin Pierce, a professor of environmental public health at the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire, found PM2.5 levels sometimes exceeding the EPA guideline of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Pierce’s initial study found PM2.5 levels ranging from 5.82 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 50.8, and is conducting further studies to provide more comprehensive results.

Pierce also pointed out that the air quality data released by the DNR largely comes from frac sand mining companies.

“The DNR so far has continued to shy away from doing their own monitoring,” he said. “The monitoring I’ve seen so far is inadequate. People aren’t looking at PM2.5, and they really should be — from unbiased sources.”

Pierce, a toxicologist by training, has started a third round of analysis using EPA-certified instruments to measure PM2.5. He said initial data continue to show PM2.5 levels are “of concern.”

Victoria Trinko — the resident who watched a sand mine move in across the road — said her symptoms decrease or disappear all together whenever she leaves the area. She also said that her daughter started experiencing similar symptoms as soon as she came to visit from Australia after Trinko first got sick. 

“I think I’m the canary in the mine,” Trinko said, referencing her proximity to the mine. “I think they’re [other residents] all going to be affected. But I’m first.”

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