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Danger in the Air

Silica Particles from Frac Sand Mining Put Tens of Thousands at Risk

Danger in the Air

Thursday, September 25, 2014

By Soren Rundquist, EWG GIS/Landscape Analyst, and Bill Walker, EWG Consultant

Danger in the Air

Silica Particles from Frac Sand Mining Put Tens of Thousands at Risk

The boom in natural gas and oil exploration using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, commonly called fracking, has created a huge demand for the sand that drilling companies mix with water and toxic chemicals and inject underground to free gas and oil trapped in deep rock formations.

A 33-county area that spans southeastern and south-central Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa has become a major source for this now-valuable sand. As of March 2014, according to data compiled and mapped by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the tri-state area was home to 71 operating silica sand mines and 27 sites for solely processing, transporting or loading sand onto trucks or rail cars. Another 82 mines or associated sites have been proposed or granted permits.

Across the region, EWG’s mapping shows that more than 58,000 people live within 750 meters (less than half a mile) of the existing permitted or proposed sand mines and related sites, which can release fine particles of silica into the air. Research has shown that these particles can degrade air quality as far as 750 meters away, leading to a variety of serious health problems, particularly in children and other vulnerable populations. More than 162,000 people make their homes within 1,500 meters of the frac sand-related sites in the region. In the absence of definitive evidence on the potential risk from airborne silica at 1,500 meters, EWG recommends that air monitoring be conducted to determine whether there is a danger to public health at that distance as well. (See Silica in Outdoor Air – The Danger of Frac Sand.)

Map

The expansion of the frac sand industry in the region has been explosive. In 2004, there were only 20 mines and 20 mine-related facilities in operation, meaning that in the last decade the number of mines has increased by 145 percent. Some news reports have cited higher figures, and the rapid growth and patchy regulation of the industry make it likely that some sites have been overlooked. EWG used figures supplied by state, county and local agencies and jurisdictions.1

EWG’s mapping (Table 1) shows:

  • If there is a ground zero of the explosion in frac sand mining, it is Trempealeau County, Wis., with 29 active, permitted or proposed mines or associated sites. Ten frac sand mines and one loading site are currently in operation in the county; 14 others have received permits and four more have been proposed.
  • Four other Wisconsin counties also have high concentrations of frac sand sites. Barron County has six operating mines and four processing or loading sites, with nine more permitted or planned; Chippewa County has six mines, two related sites and six more on the way; Wood County has seven mines, three related sites and another proposed; and Monroe County has eight mines, one related site and two more proposed. Two Wisconsin counties, Jackson and Buffalo, have fewer operating sites, but between them there are 19 on the way. When all of the permitted and proposed sites are in operation, these six counties plus Trempealeau will have 99 sites in all, well over half of the facilities in the tri-state area.
  • In Minnesota, the most affected county is Winona, with three mines and five related sites in operation and five proposed. No other Minnesota county has more than five working, permitted or proposed sites.
  • There is only one operating mine in northeast Iowa, in Clayton County. Mines were proposed in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in 2012, but public opposition led both to enact 18-month moratoriums. They are due to expire in the fall of 2014, and at least some local officials do not expect them to be extended.2

With the exception of Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul, Minn., most of the counties where frac sand facilities are located are rural or small-town areas. But the spread of the industry throughout the region means that tens of thousands of people now live or work near sand mines or their associated sites.

Using U.S. Census data and computer mapping, EWG calculated the number of people in each county who live within 750 meters and 1,500 meters of a frac sand site. (Table 2) The first zone, at 750 meters, is the distance downwind from a sand and gravel pit at which air monitoring studies have found that the level of airborne silica particles can be twice as high as it is upwind. The second zone, at 1,500 meters, is the distance from the sites at which EWG recommends that regulators monitor air quality. There is not enough evidence to know whether people living in the 750-to-1,500 meter zones are at risk, but the lack of certainty underscores the need for monitoring, health studies and adoption of enforceable standards.

EWG’s mapping also found:

  • By a wide margin, the place where the most people live in a zone of concern is Winona County, Minn., where more than 22,000 people live within 750 meters of frac sand sites and more than 62,000 live within 1,500 meters.
  • Other counties where more than 10,000 people live in the zones of concern are Monroe County, Wis., with more than 5,800 people within 750 meters and more than 13,700 within 1,500 meters; Ramsey County, Minn., with more than 16,500 people within 1,500 meters; and Wood County, Wis., with more than 11,000 people within 1,500 meters.
  • There are also frac sand sites in proximity to schools, hospitals and clinics, where children, patients and others with greater sensitivity to airborne silica may be exposed. In the 33 counties, 20 schools are within 750 meters of frac sand sites and 83 are within 1,500 meters; two hospitals or clinics are within 750 meters and 32 are within 1,500 meters.

Table 1. Existing, permitted and proposed frac sand mining sites

County Operational Permitted Proposed Total
Barron, Wis. 10 8 1 19
Mine 3 6   9
Mine + Processing 3   1 4
Processing   2   2
Processing + Rail Load-out 4     4
Blue Earth, Minn. 1     1
Mine + Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Buffalo, Wis. 2 4 4 10
Mine 1 2 1 4
Mine + Processing 1 2 2 5
Rail Load-out     1 1
Burnett. Wis. 1     1
Mine + Processing 1     1
Chippewa, Wis. 8 5 1 14
Mine 3 2   5
Mine + Processing 3 2 1 6
Processing + Rail Load-out 1 1   2
Rail Load-out 1     1
Chisago, Minn. 1     1
Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Clark, Wis. 4     4
Mine 2     2
Mine + Processing 2     2
Clayton, Iowa 1     1
Mine + Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Columbia, Wis. 1     1
Mine + Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Crawford, Wis. 2     2
Mine 1     1
Rail Load-out 1     1
Dunn, Wis. 2   1 3
Mine 1     1
Rail Load-out 1   1 2
Eau Claire, Wis. 1 2   3
Mine   2   2
Mine + Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Fillmore, Minn. 1   4 5
Mine 1   4 5
Goodhue, Minn. 1   1 2
Mine + Processing     1 1
Rail Load-out 1     1
Grant, Wis. 1     1
Mine 1     1
Green Lake, Wis. 4     4
Load-out 2     2
Mine + Processing 1     1
Mine  + Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Houston, Minn.     5 5
Mine     5 5
Jackson, Wis. 5 5 6 16
Mine   3 4 7
Mine + Processing 2 2 2 6
Mine + Processing + Rail Load-out 2     2
Processing _ Rail Load-out 1     1
Juneau, Wis.     1 1
Mine     1 1
Le Sueur, Minn. 2   2 4
Mine     1 1
Mine & Processing     1 1
Mine & Processing + Load-out 1     1
Mine & Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Monroe, Wis. 9   2 11
Mine 2     2
Mine + Processing 2   1 3
Mine + Processing + Rail Load-out 4   1 5
Rail Load-out 1     1
Olmsted, Minn. 1     1
Mine 1     1
Pepin, Wis. 1     1
Mine 1     1
Pierce, Wis. 4 1 1 6
Mine 1 1   2
Mine + Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Processing 1   1 2
Processing + Rail Load-out 1     1
Ramsey, Minn. 1     1
Rail Load-out 1     1
Rusk, Wis.     1 1
Rail Load-out     1 1
Scott, Minn. 1   2 3
Mine + Processing     1 1
Mine + Processing + Rail Load-out 1   1 2
St. Croix, Wis. 2   1 3
Mine 2     2
Mine + Processing     1 1
Trempealeau, Wis. 11 14 4 29
Mine 4 7 2 13
Mine + Processing 5 6 1 12
Mine  + Processing + Rail Load-out 1 1   2
Rail Load-out 1   1 2
Wabasha, Minn. 1     1
Rail Load-out 1     1
Washington, Minn. 1     1
Mine + Processing 1     1
Winona, Minn. 8   5 13
Barge Load-out 1     1
Mine 2   3 5
Mine + Processing 1     1
Processing 1   1 2
Processing + Rail Load-out     1 1
Rail Load-out 2     2
Rail Load-out + Barge Load-out 1     1
Wood, Wis. 10   1 11
Mine 7   1 8
Processing +  Rail Load-out 3     3
Total 98 39 43 180

Environmental Working Group, from state, county and local government data.

Table 2. Population living in proximity to frac sand sites

County, State Population 750m Population 1500m
Barron, Wis. 2,685 5,950
Blue Earth, Minn. 1,268 6,284
Buffalo, Wis. 742 1,197
Burnett, Wis. 166 237
Chippewa, Wis. 1,561 3,547
Chisago, Minn. 295 1,325
Clark, Wis. 540 868
Clayton, IA 12 29
Columbia, Wis. 674 883
Crawford, Wis. 1,517 3,976
Dunn, Wis. 773 1,921
Eau Claire, Wis. 459 752
Fillmore, Minn. 212 440
Goodhue, Minn. 1,702 4,254
Grant, Wis. 146 169
Green Lake, Wis. 303 710
Houston, Minn. 342 741
Jackson, Wis. 823 3,721
Juneau, Wis. 43 202
Le Sueur, Minn. 1,058 2,910
Monroe, Wis. 5,838 13,740
Olmsted, Minn. 220 873
Pepin, Wis. 87 166
Pierce, Wis. 1,002 1,587
Ramsey, Minn. 3,171 16,526
Rusk, Wis. 233 355
Scott, Minn. 599 1,590
St. Croix, Wis. 289 842
Trempealeau, Wis. 4,263 6,981
Wabasha, Minn. 799 1,301
Washington, Minn. 2,027 5,230
Winona, Minn. 22,061 62,292
Wood, Wis. 2,881 11,189
Total 58,791 162,788

Environmental Working Group, from U.S. Census data

To read an extensive report on frac sand mining published by EWG research partner Civil Society Institute, click here.

 


1 Iowa Department of Natural Resources; Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources and Transportation and ’Environmental Quality Board; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Fillmore, LeSeur and Scott counties, Minn.; Monroe and Trempealeau counties, Wis.; City of Winona, Minn.

2 Frac sand mining: Its fate in NE Iowa should rest in local hands. Cedar Rapids Gazette, Feb. 16, 2014.