As oil companies eye the Monterey Shale Formation, what has fracking wrought in the Midwest?
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Safely buried since the Pleistocene age, danger is stirring. Driven by unbridled lust for energy and wealth, small men with giant tools are unleashing a lethal demon on villages and farms across America’s Midwest.
Now that I have your attention, here’s the less sensational version of how the mining of prehistoric sands – used in the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas – threatens the health of humans and the environment.
The downsides of extracting hydrocarbons by high-powered fracking of petroleum-rich shale are well known. But fracking could not function without a lesser-known tandem industry: mining crystalline silica sand, large deposits of which lie just below the surfaces of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Increasingly, vast, open-pit frac-sand mines blight the landscape like the earth’s own acne.
During the fracking process, tough, spherical grains of frac sand are “suspended in fluid and injected into oil and gas wells under very high pressure,” the website of Wisconsin-based Glacier Sands LLC explains. “The fluid pressure opens and enlarges fractures as well as creates new ones,” and the injected sand props open the fractures after the fluid is pumped out. The “proppants” may also create an escape route for toxic chemicals such as methane, benzene, toluene and radon.
THE TECHNOLOGY CAME INTO ITS OWN IN 2005, AFTER CONGRESS PASSED THE HALLIBURTON LOOPHOLE.
While concerned citizens see risk, the industry touts job creation and cheap energy. “It’s all an upside,” Glacier Sands Vice President Brian Iverson told WinonnaDailyNews.com about a proposed facility near a school. “We don’t see a downside.”
Others do. Environmentalists warn that frac-sand mining can generate airborne particles that cause cancer, silicosis and other lung diseases; undermine conservation and exacerbate climate change by perpetuating reliance on cheap fossil fuels; scar the landscape; destroy property values; create 24/7 truck traffic, noise and infrastructural damage to taxpayer-funded roads and bridges; undermine aquifer quality and renewability; fill streams with silt; create ponds fouled with industrial waste; contaminate groundwater with processing chemicals; and ruin fertile farmland.
Commercial fracking goes back to 1949, when Halliburton, of Dick Cheney fame, became the first company to try it. The technology came into its own in 2005 after Congress passed the “Halliburton loophole,” exempting fracking from most major federal environmental regulation. By 2008, a push to increase domestic energy sourcing and higher fossil fuel prices helped spur a fracking boom. In the decade leading to 2012, U.S. shale gas production expanded 2,400 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Frac-sand mining’s most imminent threat to human health is silica dust, which Wisconsin labels a carcinogenic hazardous air pollutant and a cause of silicosis – the incurable, progressive disease endemic in miners and stoneworkers until it was slowly curbed by federal workplace-safety regulations. There are no such federal standards for silica in ambient air. The fine particles that can cloud the air during digging, processing, storing and transport cause the “most concern,” the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency warns.
Although concentrations of silica from sources including frac sands “could be above a level of concern,” according to a 2011 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources report, the state has neither the ability nor the authority to regulate them. Nor can it “determine conclusively whether silica emissions in the state may be a public health concern.”
Until then, perhaps the public could just cut down on breathing.
TERRY ALLEN writes for In These Times.