Research & Commentary: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Draft Comprehensive Study Finds Frac Sand Mining Environmentally Sound

Published July 18, 2016

A draft report of a strategic analysis of the mining of industrial silica sand, also called “frac sand,” was released in June 2016 by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The study found process used to mine frac sand is safe for the environment and for people. The DNR report also provides “factual information about the industry and typical operations, as well as about air quality, water quality, wetlands, groundwater, wildlife, endangered resources, and socio-economics.”

Currently, Wisconsin has 128 industrial facilities for mining silica sand, of which 92 are active. In 2010, there were only seven.

The recent surge in frac sand production has occurred alongside an increase in environmental concerns about the impacts of this form of mining. Isaac Orr, research fellow at The Heartland Institute, and Mark Krumenacher, senior principal and senior vice president of GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., who have written a series of four Policy Studies investigating the economic, environmental, social, and roadway impacts of frac sand mining, say many criticisms about the practice 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 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 DNR strategic analysis, in a blow to anti-frac-sand groups, found no elevated levels of particulate matter in the air near mining sites. “Particulate emissions are addressed by existing regulations and monitoring data have not identified problematic air quality at sand mining and processing sites,” wrote the study’s authors. “In addition, point source emissions from industrial sand facility operations … are not significant and are unlikely to significantly contribute to secondary formation of other pollutants such as ozone. As a result of existing regulations and the permitting and compliance activities described above, health related impacts from industrial sand facilities are not likely to be an issue.” 

Although polyacrylamides, which are toxic and carcinogenic, are used as a flocculant in the process used to mine frac sand (to gather and remove unwanted minerals from water used to wash the sand), the DNR study found there was no detection of acrylamides in groundwater in or near mining facilities. The report also notes a 2014 analysis found zero-to-minimal detection of suspended solids (floating, gathered pollutants) in the surface water at 17 different frac sand facilities. However, the draft analysis does recommend the threat of water contamination merits further study.  

Mining in Wisconsin, Orr and Krumenacher write, “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 provide more information on industrial silica sand mining.          

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Industrial Sand Mining in Wisconsin: Strategic Analysis for Public Review
Wisconsin’s pollution control agency released a draft for public comment of a comprehensive study of sand mining on June 28, 2016 which found air quality monitors in western Wisconsin have not detected elevated levels of fine particulates despite increased frac sand mining. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR)’ strategic analysis is intended to assess “the latest scientific, natural resource, and socioeconomic information” of the 128 mines, processing and loading facilities across western Wisconsin. While the DNR found no evidence of air pollution from frac sand mining it did say the threat of water contamination merited further study.

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. 


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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