How would you feel if you walked into a doctor’s office and the doctor told you about the potential dangers of heart surgery but didn’t tell you the risks can be minimized with proper precautions or about any of the benefits of the surgery? That would be a frightening experience, because we need as much information as possible to make the best decisions, and withholding vital information from those who need it most is unethical.
Unfortunately, special-interest groups have published a study attempting to scare the people of Wisconsin and other parts of the Upper Midwest about mining sand used for hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “frac sand,” by presenting only one side of the story.
Instead of basing the study on the best available scientific evidence and discussing both the costs and benefits of frac sand mining, anecdotal evidence (which is unscientific and unreliable and can lead to cherry picking data) is used to focus on costs while completely ignoring benefits.
This special-interest study attempts to portray frac sand mining as an industry running amuck, operating without oversight or regulation. It also tries to paint the industry as a threat to a clean water supply and as a possible cancer risk, but it doesn’t provide even a grain of real science to support these claims.
Contrary to assertions that the frac sand industry lacks proper oversight, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) website states all nonmetallic mining operations (including frac sand) must obtain DNR water permits to operate in the state. Additional permits are needed for water withdrawal, modifying wetlands, storm-water discharge, air pollution for construction and operation of the facilities, mine safety, and many more industry practices. DNR rules also require frac sand companies to restore the land upon completing the mining process, reestablishing wildlife habitats or farm fields.
The study also raises concerns about the amount of water used to wash frac sand, leading some to fear these operations could potentially deplete water resources. However, frac sand washing and processing was only the sixth-largest use in the ten counties that reported frac sand watering operations, and most frac sand facilities use a closed-loop process, indicating nearly 90 percent of water can be recycled for onsite reuse. Because most of the water is recycled, EOG, a sand plant in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin which uses approximately two million gallons a day, requires only 18,000 gallons of “make-up water” each day.
A vital part of recycling water for frac sand processing is removing the small clay particles from the water by using the flocculant polyacrylamide, a safe chemical used by most municipal wastewater treatment facilities, to get clay particles to “clump together” and settle out of the water. Perhaps in an attempt to stir up fears about water contamination and cancer outbreaks, the study states polyacrylamide can also contain acrylamide, a known neurotoxin, but it fails to provide proper context. Polyacrylamide can contain acrylamide, but only in trace amounts.
The study additionally fails to acknowledge acrylamide breaks down quickly into CO2 and ammonia. 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 ground water. This further reduces the probability of negative health effects.
The study also purports to have evidence of acid mine drainage, which frac sand mining does not create, but the data has mysteriously disappeared from the host website.
Make no mistake, everything we do has an environmental impact, and frac sand mining is no exception. But to exaggerate the costs and ignore the benefits is dishonest. Wisconsin can take reasonable precautions to develop frac sand resources in an environmentally responsible way and continue to enjoy the benefits of creating thousands of high-paying jobs throughout the state.
Unscientific studies, half-truths, and missing data stand in the way of an informed discussion about frac sand in the same way a doctor does when he or she tells you the costs and none of the benefits of a procedure. Wisconsinites should seek a second opinion.
[First published at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.]