Behind the fracking boom, a sand mining rush

July 17, 2013

Sand mining is a largely-overlooked side effect of the fracking boom. “Frac sand” refers to the fine, white silica or quartz sand that is in high demand for use in hydraulic fracturing. The fracking process involves drilling a well thousands of feet underground, cracking open the shale rock, and shooting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into the miniscule cracks to force out natural gas. The sand serves as a “proppant” to hold open the cracks in the rock.

Most of that sand comes from regions where fracking itself is not taking place. LaSalle County, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago, has historically been the silica mining capital of the country. Now with the fracking process coming to some of Illinois’ downstate communities, the frac sand issue is grabbing a little more attention, although, as of yet, the downstate prospecting for natural gas wells has little effect on the sand mining industry in the northern part of the state. Listen in on the controversy over a proposed mine adjacent to Starved Rock State Park (above). And then read on for some key facts about mining for frac sand.

While reporting this story, WBEZ also came across a case of severe and dangerous water contamination next to a frac sand mine in LaSalle County. While the problems with the water in Wedron remain an unsolved mystery (listen above), check below for what we do know about Wedron.

Key Facts About Frac Sand Mining in Illinois

Frac sand is not just for fracking. The sand that most companies want to use as a proppant in fracking fluid is the purest possible silica, or quartz, in a round and even grain size. The silica found in the midwest, in what’s called the St. Peter sandstone formation, is perfect for the companies’ purposes—and it’s also the sand that forms the majestic bluffs at Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park. This same sand has long been mined for commercial and industrial uses like sandboxes and glass. It’s particularly advantageous for mining operations to find areas where silica is close to the surface.

Sand mining has been going on in Illinois since at least the 1860s. A mine belonging to U.S. Silica, the largest sand mining company in the country, has been located in Ottawa, Illinois since the 1860s.

There are five silica sand mines in Illinois, four of them in LaSalle County. Three new mines have been proposed and permitted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) but they are not currently operating. Over the last five years, U.S. Silica, Unimin and Fairmount Minerals, companies with long-standing mines in LaSalle County, have all increased production and opened new facilities in other states.

Illinois is historically the silica sand capital of the country. In 2012, the state was second behind Texas in production of silica sand. Wisconsin is a close third: the number of sand mines in Wisconsin more than doubled from 2010-2011 and has been growing since, although in 2012 the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported the rush to get new mining permits was slowing. Many of the more than 100 Wisconsin mines have a far lower production capacity than Illinois’ well-established mines.

Demand has skyrocketed. The demand for silica sand suddenly shot through the roof with the growth of the fracking industry in the late 2000s. In 2011, U.S. silica consumption was over 26 million tons; in 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey reported it had nearly doubled to over 45 million tons. Prices spiked for a couple years, although now companies in Illinois and Wisconsin report the pricing has leveled out as supply begins to meet demand. The owner of Mississippi Sand, LLC says his sand will sell for $100-$150 per ton, including transportation.

Protections for workers have improved. Breathing in the fine particulate matter from silica mining can cause silicosis and other lung diseases. But in contrast to the first hundred years of mining for silica sand, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) now requires protections for workers such as wearing face masks. Still, many mines have been found in violation of federal and state standards, and a federal study reported 148 deaths from silicosis in 2002.

Air pollution from dust is a risk of silica mines. The federal EPA doesn’t regulate airborne silica, but states may require air quality monitoring around mines. The proposed Mississippi Sand mine next to Starved Rock State Park will have to get an Illinois EPA air quality permit in order to start mining.

Most mines use a lot of water. Silica sand mining operations use water to wash sand, and they may also use water to keep down dust on windy days. In addition, many surface mining operations dig down into aquifers, which means some mines pump out water to the tune of millions of gallons per day in order to reach the desired sand.

Silica mining can contaminate waterways. Environmentalists say water containing silica sediment may silt up streams and harm wildlife. Water quality around sand mines is regulated by states, and in Illinois, surface mines are required to get a water discharge permit for operation. The proposed mine next to Starved Rock State Park has a permit to discharge over five million gallons of water per day into a nearby creek, and an average of 1.4 million gallons per day. The mine will be required to submit monthly water quality reports. In Wisconsin, a recent report found many mines violated water quality standards in 2012.  

Mining can lower the water table and disturb wetlands. Because some sand mines reach below the water table, mining operations may involve pumping water out of the ground. These operations are known to alter water levels in certain areas, including at a sand mine in Wedron, Illinois that is now under investigation for its connection to groundwater contamination.

Sand is shipped out by train, barge and truck. The owner of Mississippi Sand, Tony Giordano, says about 100 trucks a day will leave the mine near Starved Rock once it is in full operation. Each truck carries about 25 tons of sand to a nearby train or barge terminal for long-distance shipping. In the case of Mississippi Sand, almost all the silica sand will be headed for fracking operations in other states.

Mining in Illinois is regulated by the state, counties and cities. There are no federal environmental standards related specifically to silica, so the environmental effects of silica mining are monitored at a state level. In Illinois, cities and counties with zoning laws can control permits for proposed mines, but may not have the authority to impose taxes or control environmental practices or traffic.

A proposed mine next to Starved Rock State Park has been approved. The mine belonging to Mississippi Sand that would be adjacent to Starved Rock received a special use permit from LaSalle County in 2012, and it was also permitted by the IDNR and the Illinois EPA. Coincidentally, the IDNR also manages the state park that activists contend will be at risk. The IDNR said in a written statement to WBEZ, “During the review process, the IDNR examined potential impacts to threatened and endangered species in the area and made recommendations to the county board based upon that analysis...Since then, the mining company has provided and satisfied all information requirements provided by law and thus, IDNR approved its permit to the company.”

The mine next to Starved Rock is not yet under construction. In December 2012, the Sierra Club, Openlands, and the Prairie Rivers Network filed a lawsuit against the IDNR and Mississippi Sand, contending that the permit fails to comply with state law protecting wetlands and wildlife. Mississippi Sand owner Tony Giordano said in July 2013 that he can’t say when operations will begin at the mine, but he believes the permitting process is proof that the mine is neither unique nor hazardous to the area. Listen to the whole story.

Key facts about the water contamination case in Wedron, Illinois

Wedron is home to one of the largest sand mines in the country. Wedron Silica, now owned by Fairmount Minerals, was established in the area 125 years ago and has expanded to become one of the largest sand mines in the county, now employing over 200 people. Fairmount also operates mines in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.

There is benzene in the groundwater supply. Benzene is commonly found in gasoline and petroleum along with toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, all of which have shown up in groundwater and well water tests in Wedron. Benzene is carcinogenic and the US EPA drinking water standard for enforcement is five parts per billion (ppb). The recommended standard is zero. Wells in Wedron have tested at up to 2400 ppb for benzene. It may also be absorbed through the air; as of July, 2013, the EPA was awaiting test results regarding benzene vapors in Wedron. Hear the Wedron story (above).

Benzene is not associated with the process of mining for frac sand. The mining process may use a lot of water and kick up a lot of dust, but it does not routinely require chemicals like benzene. If benzene in Wedron is somehow related to the presence of the mine, it would have to do with products used to clean equipment, or for maintenance or transportation, not mining itself.

Benzene could be associated with equipment used at the mine, or with an old spill. Twice in the last fifty years, trains have derailed in Wedron and spilled petroleum directly into the ground. Recent investigations have also uncovered underground storage tanks from former gas stations on the land now belonging to Illinois Railway, which hauls sand in and out of Wedron. A final theory on the source of the contaminants, suggested by Bob Bowcock, an environmental investigator for Erin Brockovich, is that a mixture of chemicals including petroleum and solvents come from an equipment maintenance facility on the Wedron Silica property. Fairmount Minerals, the owner of Wedron Silica, denies this charge.

The groundwater flow has been altered by mining in Wedron. A 2013 EPA groundwater study found that the pumping up of water out of a mining pit on the west side of town has likely caused the groundwater in Wedron to flow west, away from the train tracks and across town toward the pit. If this is true, that would be an alteration to its natural path. The EPA document says “mining operations are generally responsible for the reversal of natural groundwater flow direction and lowering the water table in Wedron.” If the mine ceased to use the pit, the water could reverse itself and begin to flow downhill toward the river again.

In 2007, Fairmount Minerals opened a new frac sand treatment facility called Technisand. Technisand produces resin-coated sand for fracking, and has facilities in Texas, Michigan, Oklahoma and Mexico. The company has declined to discuss whether benzene could be involved in the Technisand operation in Wedron, but maintains that it does not believe Wedron Silica is responsible for a petroleum spill.

An investigator from Erin Brockovich’s office says they intend to file suit against the sand mine. Bob Bowcock, an environmental investigator for the Brockovich firm, says the suit will ask for damages on behalf of 35 residents of Wedron. (Updated July 17. A previous version of this story listed the number involved in the suit as 25.)

Lewis Wallace is a reporter. Follow him on Twitter @lewispants