Another Attack on Sand Mining

Published December 8, 2016

Midwest Environmental Advocates continued its science-free assault on industrial sand mining, also referred to as frac sand mining, by filing a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking the federal agency to revoke an air quality permit granted to Superior Silica Sands. The permit, which was issued by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, allows SSS to expand its existing operations located in Barron County.

Midwest Environmental Advocates says by issuing this permit, the DNR is “ignoring its responsibilities to protect our air under federal law,” and it claims, “DNR is ignoring the presence of cumulative impacts of fine particulate matter from facilities including frac sand mines under its new policy.”

However, if anyone is ignoring the impact of industrial sand mining on air quality, it is Midwest Environmental Advocates.

According to the DNR, particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) is largely formed by chemical reactions in the atmosphere — such as nucleation, condensation, and coagulation — and not by mechanical processes. For this reason, DNR issued guidelines instructing permit applicants to assume mechanical processes — such as crushing, grinding, and sizing sand — are not sources of PM2.5, which effectively means estimates of these types of particles are not required in the permit application.

Midwest Environmental Advocates argues this policy is a violation of guidelines issued by EPA that say potential sources of PM2.5 should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but when it comes to industrial sand mining, several scientific studies have found sand mining does not generate harmful levels of small particulates, supporting DNR’s position. Among these studies are investigations conducted by the Wisconsin DNR, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the University of Iowa, nationally respected air-quality scientists, and nonprofits.

These studies have all found air quality near frac sand mining and processing facilities is largely comparable to regional air quality, meaning the amount of PM2.5 near these facilities is more likely to be impacted by regional weather patterns than the sand facilities.

The Institute for Wisconsin’s Health, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the health of Wisconsinites, recently conducted a thorough investigation of the potential health risks posed by frac sand mining in the state by examining the best available scientific data. It concluded none of the industrial sand sites in which PM2.5 was measured were in violation of the daily limits established by EPA.

Rather than celebrate this as good news, Midwest Environmental Advocates has attempted to refute these scientific studies—which, cumulatively, consist of thousands of air samples gathered using EPA-certified equipment—by citing a study that included a total of only six samples and relied on equipment that is not approved by EPA.

This is in no way scientifically defensible.

In addition to the multitude of studies that have demonstrated industrial sand mining generally does not affect air quality, air quality in Barron County, where the Superior Silica Sands facility is located, already has cleaner air than the state average, making Midwest Environmental Advocates’ supposed concerns about the potential cumulative impact on air quality all the more unsubstantiated.

Everyone wants to have clean air and clean water, which is why understanding the impacts of industrial sand mining is so important and why studies must be based on the best science available. Midwest Environmental Advocates’ blatant disregard for scientifically valid studies conducted by multiple state agencies, universities, and air monitoring experts, while trumpeting studies with serious shortcomings, is not environmental advocacy, it’s environmental ambulance chasing.

This petition to EPA is primarily about creating more hoops for Superior Silica Sands and other companies to jump through when they attempt to build or expand their industrial sand facilities. EPA should examine the data collected fairly and refuse to revoke this permit.

[Originally Published at the La Crosse Tribune]