Research & Commentary: A Summary of the Impacts of Industrial Silica Sand (Frac Sand) Mining

Published March 11, 2016

Isaac Orr, research fellow at The Heartland Institute, and Mark Krumenacher, senior principal and senior vice president of GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., have written a series of four Policy Studies investigating the economic, environmental, social, and roadway impacts of industrial silica sand mining, also known as “frac sand” mining. These studies are intended to help local policymakers and the general public better understand the potential impacts, both positive and negative, of industrial sand operations on their communities.

Industrial silica sand, which is produced from sandstone formations, has been safely mined in the United States for more than a century and is used in many industries, including in glassmaking, metal production, and in concrete mixes. One of its more important modern uses is in the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process, where, along with water and trace amounts of chemical additives, it is injected into rock formations to help break them apart, thereby allowing for the extraction of oil and natural gas.

The massive growth of fracking in the United States over the past decade has led to a surge in demand for industrial silica sand. In 2005, prior to the start of the U.S. fracking boom, only 31 million metric tons of silica sand were mined in the United States. By 2014, that number had jumped to 75 million metric tons. Most frac sand minding operations are located in five states in the Midwest, along with Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

The recent surge in frac sand production has occurred alongside an increase in environmental concerns about the impacts of this form of mining. Orr and Krumenacher say many criticisms about frac sand mining started with local residents who have objections common to other “not in my back yard” movements, but they also say special-interest groups “are ideologically opposed to oil and natural gas development and … to the use of hydraulic fracturing regardless of data demonstrating its safety.”

These groups, who have been pushing local and state governments in many states, notably Minnesota and Wisconsin, to ban the practice disregard the numerous studies from regulatory agencies and research groups that conclusively show silica sand mining operations provide virtually no public health risks.

The industrial sand industry is providing high-paying jobs in rural counties that would otherwise have few opportunities for quality employment, and research shows it has become a significant driver of economic growth in the Upper Midwest. In Wisconsin, where approximately two-thirds of all U.S. frac sand production currently exists, the industry would directly support 4,900–7,100 jobs if all permitted silica sand mining sites and processing facilities become fully operational. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation estimates the current employment figure for the state’s frac sand mining industry is 2,880–4,230 jobs. The authors note that these are also high-paying jobs, with “total earnings consistently above the average wages in Wisconsin and exceeding by 30 to 82 percent the average per-capita income in mining counties and communities.”

Orr and Krumenacher say claims frac sand mining negatively impact agriculture and tourism are overblown. Studies have shown up to 97 percent of original crop yields have been obtained in just three years following reclamation from sand mines, and data from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism for the years 2010–14 show, “[D]irect visitor spending and tourism-supported employment increased in industrial sand-producing counties by 100 percent and 75 percent, respectively.”

While frac sand opponents cite potential impacts on property values as another reason to ban the practice, the authors report, “Multiple studies by university researchers, land-use consulting firms, real estate appraisal firms, individual certified appraisers, and government agencies have also found no consistent relationship between silica sand mining operations and neighboring residential properties.”

Orr and Krumenacher say some properties may be impacted by mining, which is why many mining companies “are already addressing these [property] concerns with local officials, who have adequate tools at their disposal to manage the impact of sand mining on their communities.”

Mining, the authors conclude, “is an indispensable part of life. It is not a threat to tourism, scenic beauty, or property values.” While citizens will have their concerns about the silica sand mining process, “The way to address emotional reactions is to acknowledge them, understand them, and respond to them with scientific evidence and real-world data. … The [silica-sand mining] process has become a significant driver of economic growth in the Upper Midwest and, if done in a [safe and] environmentally responsible manner, it will be an important source employment and earnings for decades to come.”

The following documents provide more information on industrial silica sand mining and hydraulic fracturing.

Environmental Impacts of Industrial Silica Sand (Frac Sand) Mining
The rate of silica sand mining in the United States has increased in recent years, due in large part to the tremendous growth in hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas using horizontal drilling techniques. Some environmental activist groups and community organizers contend silica sand mining presents significant threats to human health and the environment. Scientific evidence strongly refutes such claims. Silica sand mining has minimal environmental impact, involves virtually no public health risk. Authors Isaac Orr, a research fellow at The Heartland Institute, and Mark Krumenacher, is a principal and senior vice president of GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., and is an important part of domestic energy production that has substantial economic benefits. They conclude silica sand mining can be done in a safe and environmentally responsible manner with the proper oversight and environmental protections. 

Economic Impacts on Industrial Silica Sand (Frac Sand) Mining
Hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas production has dramatically increased the demand for industrial silica sand, known as “frac sand,” available in great abundance in the Upper Midwest. As new sand mines and processing facilities are proposed, the policymakers and citizens of counties with frac sand resources are being asked to evaluate the potential economic benefits and costs of industrial sand mining. In this Policy Study, the second in a series addressing frac sand mining topics, Heartland Institute Research Fellow Isaac Orr and geologist Mark Krumenacher address the key issues with which local policymakers and their constituents must contend.

Roadway Impacts on Industrial Silica Sand (Frac Sand) Mining
As many as 9,000 non-metallic mines operate in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin – approximately one mine for every 3,000 residents. Until recently, those mines have operated without opposition. But industrial sand mining recently has become a more contentious issue as environmental groups have taken note of the growing number of mines meeting the growing demand for the industrial silica sand used in oil and natural gas development, referred to as “frac sand.” In this Policy Study, the third in a series addressing frac sand mining topics, Heartland Institute Research Fellow Isaac Orr and Mark Krumenacher, a senior principal and senior vice president of GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., specifically address the potential impacts of frac sand mining on public roadways.

Social Impacts of Industrial Silica Sand (Frac Sand) Mining: Land Use and Value
The “social” impact of sand-mining operations, including their impact on land use, scenic beauty, and property values, can be a sensitive topic. Emotion and opinion, rather than technical facts and scientific data, tend to dominate the discussion. Heartland Institute Research Fellow Isaac Orr and Mark Krumenacher, a senior principal and senior vice president of GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., take the sensitive nature of this topic seriously and address it thoughtfully in the enclosed Policy Study, the fourth in a series addressing frac sand mining topics. Orr and Krumenacher briefly discuss the importance of mining and raw materials in our lives and explore concerns commonly expressed about mining as an industry. They describe four ways local elected officials can understand the emotional reactions a community might have to a proposed new development – mental noise, perception of threats, elements of trust, and dominance of negatives – all of which can make it difficult for individuals to examine an issue rationally and can cause them to become unnecessarily concerned.

Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help withstand ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography.

Silica Sand Mining in Wisconsin
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources summarizes the best current information on the silica sand mining process. The report finds the current regulatory environment in Wisconsin is sufficient to protect the public and the environment as silica sand mining expands. 

The Economic Impact of Frac Sand Mining
Two economists from Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc. analyze the economic impact of a silica sand mining expansion in Wood County, Wisconsin, an area with plenty of the resource. Among the many findings, the authors conclude the mining expansion would create more than 600 jobs and $33 million in new earnings in just the first year. 

Hydraulic Fracturing: A Game-Changer for Energy and Economies
Vast reserves of oil and natural gas have been known to exist in shale formations throughout the United States for decades, but extracting these resources was not economically viable until the advent of “smart drilling” technology – the combination of horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing techniques, and computer-assisted underground monitoring. Fracking has transformed the way oil and natural gas are produced in the U.S. The dramatic success of fracking has attracted the attention of environmental groups, who have raised concerns about the impact this new technique could have on the environment, including concerns about groundwater contamination, water consumption, wastewater disposal, earthquakes, and greenhouse gas emissions. They are taking advantage of the public’s limited understanding of the smart drilling process, limited knowledge of geology, and lack of knowledge of current federal and state regulations on oil and gas production. In this Policy Brief, The Heartland Research Fellow Isaac Orr explains the advantages and disadvantages of smart drilling and the alternatives so that a better-informed discussion takes place.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the website of Environment & Climate News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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