Evidence Mounts of Hidden Fracking Hazards

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Evidence Mounts of Hidden Fracking Hazards

"We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development," environmentalist warns

A web of roads, pipelines, and fracking wells. (Photo: Simon Fraser University/flickr/cc)

A major report released Thursday exposes a hidden hazard of fracking: the mining of the special sand—known as 'frac sand,' for short—that is essential to the practice.

Frac sand mining uses significant volumes of groundwater, contributes to air pollution, and has negative socio-economic impacts, according to "Communities At Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest" (pdf), produced by the the Civil Society Institute's Boston Action Research project in cooperation with Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA).

Analysts estimate that fracking operations will use 95 billion pounds of sand this year, up 30 percent from last year and 50 percent higher than initial forecasts. The sand, which must be uniform in shape and the grains able to withstand enormous pressures at great depth underground, is currently mined most heavily in Wisconsin and Minnesota, though the report identifies sand deposits in 12 others states (including New York, North Carolina, Maine, and Virginia) that could be affected as fracking demand grows. Wisconsin alone is on track to extract 50 million tons of frac sand a year—the equivalent of 9,000 semi-truck loads a day.

"Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape."
—Kimberlee Wright, Midwest Environmental Advocates

The mining process, which involves blasting off the soil, rock, and vegetation above a sand deposit, then washing, drying, and storing the excavated sand, uses between 420 thousand and 2 million gallons of water per day, according to the report, potentially drawing down groundwater supplies. In addition, the use of added chemicals when processing the sand could lead to contaminated run-off in nearby streams and wetlands.

Even more troubling is the release of fine particulate matter, such as silica dust, at mining sites and in the surrounding areas. Frac sand mining produces "very small and very dangerous dust particles," the report reads, which have been linked to respiratory infections, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. While air samples have shown particle pollution around mining sites exceeds safe levels, there is little regulation of these emissions. "[M]onitoring of this rapidly expanding industry has been outpaced by the rate of development," the authors note.

"None of the states at the center of the current frac sand mining boom have adopted air quality standards for silica that will adequately protect the tens of thousands of people living or working near the scores of recently opened or proposed mining sites," said EWG's executive director Heather White. "EWG's mapping research found frac sand sites in close proximity to schools, hospitals and clinics, where children and patients may be exposed to airborne silica. Chronic exposure can lead to emphysema and lung disease. We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development."

Other economic impacts are harder to measure but no less important to consider. The report raises questions about how frac sand mining operations affect property values, infrastructure costs, and demands on health care providers, cautioning towns and local communities to "exercise precaution" when evaluating potential sites in their region.

"Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape," said MEA executive director Kimberlee Wright. "Elected officials and our states' natural resources protection agency have largely dismissed local citizens' concerns about their health, the health of their environment and their quality of life. Without a clearer view of the big picture of frac sand mining's impact, laws that protect our communities' air and water aren't being developed or enforced."

The other end of the shale gas extraction cycle is no less toxic. A separate peer-reviewed study, published earlier this week in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology, suggests fracking wastewater can endanger drinking water even after it has passed through treatment plants and been diluted.

According to UPI:

Most fracking operations store their wastewater in holding ponds. Eventually, that water is filtered through municipal or commercial treatment plants and emptied into rivers, lakes and ponds.

But new research suggests that wastewater contaminants, when subjected to traditional treatment methods like chlorination or ozonation, encourage toxic byproducts.

Researchers with the American Chemical Society found that even extremely diluted wastewater can still produce these byproducts during the treatment process. Scientists say their findings suggest regulators and energy officials should be more careful about which surface waters treated wastewater is emptied into.

The scientists and engineers from Duke and Stanford Universities used water samples from Pennsylvania and Arkansas frack sites.

“The drinking water facilities should be aware of this,” said Bill Mitch, a lead author on the study and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. “You need a lot of dilution to make these discharges no longer matter.”

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