Monday, July 22, 2013

Frac sand: the Midwest's mining boom

Mining companies want to expand operations into northeast Iowa to mine a mineral essential for extracting oil and gas.

By Jon Overton

Two northeast Iowa counties recently passed moratoriums on silica sand mining after the process adversely affected some Minnesota and Wisconsin communities where the mineral was mined extensively. While mining companies promise more local jobs, opponents worry that damage to infrastructure, health, the environment and tourism would outweigh mines’ benefits.

What’s so special about silica sand?

Silica sand is used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract oil and gas. Demand for silica sand has grown with demand for fuel, creating a need for more mines.

Silica sand has also been used in the glass, foundry, and chemical industries.

Fracking involves pumping a mixture of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure thousands of feet underground. The process creates cracks in shale, which proppant (usually in the form of sand) holds open, allowing gas to flow up to extraction wells.

Graphic by Al Granberg, ProPublica

However, not just any sand will do. “Frac sand” must meet specific qualifications: almost pure quartz, well rounded and high compressive strength.

The Pattison Sand Company runs Iowa’s only silica sand mine, near Clayton, mining sand both underground and at the surface.

Mines seem to show some promise for producing economic gains. Industry reports for numerous regions have promised substantial job growth and greater economic activity around proposed mining sites.

And a sliver of northeast Iowa has large deposits of this high demand resource.

Golly gee willickers, this sounds great. Why aren’t we investing in sand mines?

The economic benefits are not as simple as the industry would like us to believe. Feel free to sigh in disappointment.

Silica sand in the Jordan Sandstone formation in northeast Iowa is close to the surface. The top layer of soil would be stripped away, which local residents fear would destroy much of the area’s natural beauty, inflicting economic damage.

Because sand mines are hard to hide, they damage the surrounding landscape’s appearance, hurting tourism, according to a report published in May by Power Consulting. Eyesores and industrialization make regions less attractive to investors.

The report also stated that mining typically brings high wage jobs while extracting valuable minerals, creating more wealth. This generally boosts economic growth. Historically however, sustained growth and prosperity rarely lasts, the report explained.

“Often, as in Appalachia or the Ozarks or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the Iron Range of Minnesota, mining has been synonymous with economic depression, high rates of unemployment and poverty, or simply ‘ghost towns.’”

Won’t sand mining still have positive short-term economic outcomes?

The report from Power Consulting explained that companies try to give most well-paying jobs to strongly qualified candidates, many of whom commute from outside local communities. Mines also bring only a few hundred jobs, barely a fraction of the entire local labor force.

Based on analysis of the effects of silica sand mining on communities in western Wisconsin, the report concluded that “[Silica sand mining] is highly likely to remain a small sliver of the overall economy that is unlikely to trigger a significant improvement in economic well-being.”

Is frac sand mining hazardous to our health?

Yes, but it depends on how close you are to it.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) detailed some adverse health effects in a report on silica sand.

“… exposures [to crystalline silica] can lead to the development of disabling and sometimes fatal lung diseases, including silicosis and lung cancer,” it stated.

However, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reported that most data about health risks related to airborne crystalline silica come mainly from occupational settings.

But dust generated by mining operations may accidentally leave the original operating sites, according to a 2012 report by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Proper regulations, it states, are necessary to minimize the uncontrolled spread of silica sand.

Are there alternatives to frac sand?

Ceramic beads also work as a proppant for fracking and the clay used to make them can be mined closer to gas and oil wells that blanket much of North Dakota.

Companies would no longer have to ship frac sand all the way from Wisconsin and Minnesota, but the sand is still much cheaper. However, most industry leaders and analysts expect the price gap to disappear due to high interest and research in developing ceramic proppant.

Although as other nations begin extracting more oil and natural gas, frac sand will probably remain in high demand, Industrial Minerals deputy editor Emma Hughes, told Minnesota Public Radio.

“In the future it may get to the point where the manufactured proppant has come to the point where it's as good and a similar price,” she said. “There may come a time when that's the preferred choice for everyone, but I don't think that time is close by.”


  1. Thanks Jon - I am glad I am not the only person in Iowa that is concerned and talking about this process. If only humanity would wake-up and realize that by destroying the earth humanity is destroying that which supports it's very existence. We are here to take care of the earth, it really doesn't belong to us - just on loan.

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