Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has long been a controversial topic. For one side, the drilling method has prompted an economic boom. It’s created jobs, increased revenues and even helped lower the cost of energy. But on the other hand, environmentalists argue that fracking has a slew of issues that will only harm the environment and the health of humans. Many argue that chemical-laden fracking wastewater seeps into water tables, causing people to grow ill. Others point to the hazards of the methane gas released in the process or the earthquakes attributed to fracking. And now, it appears that sand is the latest target in the battlefield surrounding the fracking industry.
The process of fracking requires millions of gallons of water, laced with dozens of chemicals and truckloads of sand to break through shale formations found deep underground. While environmentalists have long fought the use of chemicals in the process, now sand is under the microscope too.
The nation’s heavy reliance on natural gas and oil from fracking has caused a need for more sand resources. And many energy companies are starting to mine their own. In just three years, more than 100 fracking sand mines have popped up in Wisconsin, a state known for its fine-grained sand. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that in the past two years, sand mining has increased 60 percent to nearly 50 million tons per year.
Some argue that dust caused from the sand, also known as silica, and diesel fumes emitted by the sand mines can have adverse health effects. If those tiny particles of sand become airborne, they can get lodged into people’s lungs and lead to silicosis, an incurable lung disease that limits the ability to breath.
In August, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, imposed a year-long moratorium on issuing new mine permits while it studies the health effects of the fracking sand mining process. And that’s not the only area that’s objected to fracking. In November, three Colorado cities voted to ban fracking as well.
Fracking proponents say silicosis isn’t something people need to worry about. They claim that the sand used for fracking is mined to be of a certain size – one that’s too large to be inhaled. And because the sand used is round and free from sharp edges that are commonly associated with lung problems, it is safe.
Of course, that assumes that all mining sites are using the correct size and shape of sand, and that smaller dust particles aren’t kicked up in the mining process itself. While some areas may be completely safe, others may be putting residents at risk.
Paul Batistelli freelances in the energy field for the promotion of a greener society and energy means. He works to raise awareness on ecological issues, energy dependency, and reducing carbon footprints.