Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gas boom drives more of mining 'frac sand,' and that raises more environmental questions

The natural-gas drilling boom in rural areas of the East and West is having an impact on a piece of the Midwest as well. Steve Karnowski of The Associated Press reports drilling companies are flocking to western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota to harvest soft sandstone that is integral in the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, in which fine sand is mixed with water and chemicals and shot underground at a high pressure to crack shale formations, releasing natural gas. Though the debate over fracking has largely ignored the mining of "frac sand," Karnowski reports the issues facing the towns where it's mined are very similar to those faced in drilling towns. (AP photo: Dust blows from frac sand piles in Wisconsin)

Industry representatives say frac sand mining brings good jobs to rural areas with little other opportunities, but opponents are concerned about the environmental and human health impacts mining will create. Activists say mining frac sand creates a fine silica dust that travels for miles by wind. They told Karnowski they fear this dust will make people sick, spoil the landscape and contaminate groundwater. Representatives of Houston-based EOG Resources, a company that mines frac sand, told Karnowski it has worked to address citizen concerns at its mines and sand processing plant in Wisconsin. Some counties in Wisconsin and Minnesota, though, have enacted mining moratoriums to "buy time for more study" about the impacts of silica dust, and to determine whether or not to ban further mining.

Nearly three-fourths of the nation's frac sand comes from the Midwest. Frac sand producers sold more than 6.5 million tons of sand worth $319 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Those numbers are likely to double in 2010 data when released. Sand is shipped mainly to gas drilling operations in Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. (Read more)

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