There are several studies on the impacts of frac sand mining underway, from many different perspectives. There are no comprehensive studies that are available now. Citizens feeling powerless to have any control over this intrusion into their environment are resorting to videos to get their stories out. I invite you to take a few minutes and listen to some of these, they say it best.
There is no doubt that jobs are created with any mining operation. The numbers used speculate on numbers of plants, rapid growth, and stability of the industry. Many of the jobs created are driving heavy equipment and trucks. These jobs require training often necessitating recruiting workers from outside the impacted areas, and are seasonal. Numbers are computed based on “man-hours” of operation. The reality is often 10-16 hour shifts, and when allowed to mines operate 24 hours, seven days a week to maximize profits.
Proponents argue the increase in local taxes collected will help the local community’s tax base, lowering taxes for everyone. Even in a heavily regulated local environment, the reality experienced in Wisconsin is that only with carefully crafted ordinances does the actual cost of mining on local services even get repaid. Often low traffic roads suddenly become truck freeways, and the affected towns and counties bear the cost of any improvements needed just to meet safety concerns. In a well crafted ordinance the additional expenses of road maintenance, dust removal, sewer demand or waste water cleanup, and reclamation of the site are all protected with bonding in advance. For townships, there is no well-defined county or state testing of air and water quality that is required with these operations, so any specific testing to meet concerns of local residents must be funded by local government.
Many local ordinances and the WI Department of Natural Resources (DNR) provide for fines or penalties for violating established regulations, terms of mining permits or licences, or the few environmental standards applicable. In this seasonal high profit business, the cost of violating agreed upon terms of operation are often considered a cost of doing business. Citizen complaints can sit in stacks at all levels of government, but unless the regulating body is committed to responding, documenting, and issuing repeated violation citations, and committing the manpower to investigate, regulations end up meaningless. A $500 or $1000 fine might seem high to a local resident, but if production is roaring it is easier to just pay it and keep the trucks rolling than to comply.
Local citizens are voicing their concerns loudly, especially within a tradition of polite discourse, even when their lives are dramatically changed. Businesses that rely on a peaceful, beautiful environment that they came to Western Wisconsin for, simply have to close because of noise, dust, and visual degradation of the scenery. A thriving organic small agriculture industry is threatened with uncertainty. Property values in mining areas drop dramatically and homesteads become impossible to sell at any price. Who wants to move in next to a mining operation?
Of all citizen concerns health effects are the largest. A Huffington Post article documents some of the hazards of silica dust from frac sand mines. While being heavily regulated in confined workplace environments for years by OSHA , silica in outdoor environments has now provoked an OSHA hazard warning for workers. The concern of residents within several miles of a mine is the health risk of the tiny, less than three micron particles, that become airborne and can travel for some distance. The effects of exposure over time, and in small diluted quantities is unknown, and current testing equipment is insufficient to gather meaningful data. In rural areas often populated by a high proportion of the elderly, and also children and people with respiratory sensitivity seeking a safe haven, the prospects are scary. Even with emerging cases histories of individual health problems, what can be observed is not scientifically considered proven. Local communities wonder looking at the history of mining, what will they be faced with in health effects, once the boom is over, and the mines are long gone.
The next article in this series will cover the grassroots politics that citizens encounter, when the frac sand mine wants to move in.