‘Loss of Place’ is Legitimate, Fear of Frac Sand is Not

Published March 21, 2016

The mining of sand used for hydraulic fracking has become a controversial issue in communities throughout Western Wisconsin. While many discussions examine the environmental and economic impacts of industrial sand mining, a new paper by an anthropology professor from the University of Wisconsin-Stout attempts to take stock of the social impacts of mining. This paper investigates a phenomenon called “loss of place,” which refers to an emotion people have when they lose a sense of their own identity due to changing physical or societal landscapes.

Although the article does a commendable job detailing the feelings of some people living near sand mines, the only mention of an academic study investigating the potential impact of frac sand facilities on air quality is a flawed and widely discredited study that does not use equipment or sampling methods approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As a result, the paper represents a missed opportunity to examine the social impacts of industrial sand mining in light of the best-available science. This could have provided a holistic and objective view of the potential impacts of frac sand mining on communities in Western Wisconsin.

People losing their sense of place are an important and often under-examined issue when it comes to discussing industrial sand mining. A recent Health Impact Assessment from the Institute for Wisconsin’s Health Inc. found although industrial sand mines are unlikely to pollute air and water resources, which could theoretically result in potentially negative health impacts for residents living near industrial sand mines, the stress and anxiety caused by people feeling they have lost their sense of place is likely the only aspect of industrial sand mining to have negative health impacts.

Feelings of stress can be amplified when people feel powerless to control their surroundings, and according to the paper, this feeling can compromise the ability of some people to enjoy their homes. Stress can also be amplified by “ambiguity of harm,” a concept that attempts to describe situations in which information about the potential harm people may incur is not clear, leading to competing interpretations of risk. Sadly, this paper may actually promote feelings of anxiety about frac sand mining, because it only cites discredited air quality research while omitting more credible research.

Air monitoring data collected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the University of Iowa, in addition to data collected by nationally respected experts in air monitoring, have used sampling equipment and methodologies approved by EPA, and the results show frac sand facilities pose no threat to public health. These are important results that should have been included in the author’s piece.

Stress and anxiety from feeling a “loss of place” are real. I grew up on a dairy farm my grandfather was born and raised on, so I have experienced this stress first-hand, as my aunts and uncles seem determined to auction off a lifetime’s worth of work to the highest bidder. It has resulted in anger, sleepless nights, and resentment toward family members. Loss of place can stem from any number of causes, but that doesn’t make these emotions any less real or less significant to those feeling them.

If read as a series of case studies, the University of Wisconsin-Stout article provides interesting insight into the lives of a select few individuals who oppose sand mining. The paper never claims to be a representative sample of the people living in frac sand communities, and it never claims to be scientific. Unfortunately, the fact the author only cited deeply flawed air-monitoring research, while omitting credible research, detracts from the article’s credibility, because it shows an unwillingness to objectively consider the costs and benefits of frac sand mining.

[Originally published at Real Clear Energy]