Sand rush: Wisconsin frac sand mining sites more than doubled in past year

Sand rush: Wisconsin frac sand mining sites more than doubled in past year by Kate Prengaman, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, July 24, 2012, Winona Daily News
Sand grains are harmless — think sand on a beach — but silica dust particles created by frac sand processing are basically tiny glass shards. Exposure to silica dust can cause silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease. … The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported 75 deaths in Wisconsin from silicosis between 1996 and 2005, mainly among manufacturing and mining workers.

Tucked behind a hill in rural Trempealeau County, farmland undergoes an industrial transformation. Outside this city of 1,300, Preferred Sands turns Wisconsin’s sandy soil into a hot commodity. … Every week, this facility ships 7,500 tons of sand by rail to oil and gas fields in Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. This 400-acre mine and processing facility is one of 20 operations that have sprung up in the past two years in Trempealeau County. The mines and processing plants produce strong, fine-grained sand in high demand for a type of oil and natural gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The number of Wisconsin frac sand mining operations has more than doubled in the past year, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found, and the state leads the nation in production. “We have the best sand in the world,” said Tom Woletz, the frac sand specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “And we have a lot of sand.” … Frac sand fever has hit much of west-central Wisconsin, catching residents and local governments by surprise. Permit applications have come in faster than residents or officials can process them — or the implications for their communities. … “It’s like a land rush for this material,” Dolley said. “I’ve been covering this commodity for 11 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Many of us are here for Aldo Leopold’s sand country,” O’Connor said, referring to the famous Wisconsin environmentalist. “This is a really spectacular piece of the world, so to have it ripped apart is kind of emotional. …”

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