If the Houston County (Minnesota) Board votes to ban fracking tonight, it won’t because the board members are basing their decision on the best available science.
Banning sand mining in Houston County would be a detrimental policy decision, because the available evidence from Wisconsin shows sand mining does not threaten the environment or the tourism industry. Sand mining can be a positive contributor to local economies that creates quality job opportunities and infuses much-needed wealth into a variety of other businesses.
Studies have repeatedly shown industrial sand mining does not reduce air quality or put the public at risk of developing silicosis. A study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in Winona found dust levels were so low along a frac-sand hauling route that their air monitors were unable to detect any respirable crystalline silica dust on 94.7 percent of the days sampled over a seven-month period. When dust was detected, it was only one-sixth the levels deemed dangerous by MPCA.
Other studies of Wisconsin frac-sand facilities showed levels of respirable crystalline silica are well within background levels characteristic of agricultural rural areas, meaning dust levels are far below concentrations that could be considered dangerous.
Water is an invaluable resource, and activities that put the quality and quantity of clean, drinkable water at risk should not be permitted. Fortunately, sand mining does not pose a risk to our water.
Data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) show industrial sand mining accounted for just 0.11 percent of all water withdrawals in 2013. In comparison, irrigation accounted for 5 percent of total water consumption, 45 times more water than sand operations used for mining and processing. In addition, sand-mining companies operate closed-loop water systems, meaning they recycle the vast majority (up to 90 percent) of the water they use. Sand mining will not deplete the water supply.
Sand mining will not threaten water quality either. Much of the concern about the potential impact on the quality of water revolves around the use of flocculants to remove small clay particles from the water so it can be recycled. One of the most common flocculants used is polyacrylamide, which can contain trace amounts of acrylamide, a neurotoxin. However, acrylamide breaks down quickly into carbon dioxide and ammonia in the environment, making it unlikely to pose a health threat. Within 14 days, 74–94 percent of acrylamide breaks down in oxygen-rich soils, and 64–89 percent in oxygen-poor soils. Because horizontal groundwater flow velocities are typically on the order of centimeters per day, acrylamide does not last long in groundwater.
There have been incidents of storm-water runoff violations, but these sorts of problems can be prevented by having proper standards for storm water retaining ponds and proper regulatory oversight, so there is no need to ban sand mining.
Despite claims industrial sand mining could negatively impact tourism, data from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism show no evidence indicating tourism has declined as a result of the industrial sand-mining industry. Direct visitor spending increased in 18 of the 22 silica-sand producing counties from 2012 to 2013, and total business sales increased in 21 of 22 of these counties.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show industrial sand mining employed 189 people in Wisconsin in 2002. A recent article reports there are probably more than 3,000 people employed in this industry. These are quality jobs that typically have total annual earnings, including benefits and 401k contributions, between $65,000 and $75,000. These earnings are two to three times as high as those for most tourism jobs.
Sand is needed for livestock bedding and construction aggregate, and it is also needed for foundries, glassmaking, and energy development. We rely on oil and natural gas to enable us to pick up our kids from school and keep us warm in the winter; these are needs, not luxuries.
Silica sand mining can bring high-paying jobs to southern Minnesota with minimal threat of environmental damage. The Houston County Board has a responsibility to base its decisions regarding sand mining on the best-available science, and the science says silica-sand mining will do no harm and much good.