Tue October 8, 2013
Looking For Frac Sand's Effects On Groundwater
Wisconsin is the number one producer of frac sand in the country. There are now more than 100 facilities across the state. In this, the second installment of our two-part series, we look at the industry's effect on groundwater and public health.
Before a frac sand mine is approved there are public hearings, and at nearly every one of these meetings concerned citizens argue that the chemicals used to wash frac sand are toxic and could get into groundwater and private wells. The chemical people are most concerned about is called polyacrylamide, which is used to get mud and fine silt out of the water used to wash the sand. UW-Eau Claire Geology Professor Kent Syverson says while polyacrylamide itself is harmless, it's made from a toxic chemical called acrylamide.
Syverson: “There will always be ... trace amounts or residual amounts that are present in that acrylamide that are present in that polyacrylamide as well. It could get into the groundwater and that’s why this is an issue... Then, if the acrylamide is in the water, the question would be: how much of it is in there, what concentration is in the water, the direction it’s moving, how fast it’s moving and how far before it might encounter a private well?”
While Syverson says such a chain of events is possible, there haven't been any studies to prove this happens. Even so, the Department of Natural Resources has regulations aimed at keeping too much of these chemicals from getting into groundwater.
DNR wastewater specialist Roberta Walls says permits limit how much polyacrylamide sand mines can use and requires them to keep records to show they're within the law. “We would be able to backtrack on that and determine whether they’re staying within their use restriction.”
But the DNR doesn't do any follow up testing of water at the mine to make sure companies are abiding by permits. Walls says she's even run into frac sand mines that don't follow the law at all: “I have encountered facilities that have not kept appropriate records.”
Whether or not the mines follow the law, it's unclear whether toxic acrylamide actually makes its way into nearby wells. There is one ongoing study working to answer that question, though it’s not being done by the EPA or the Wisconsin DNR: instead, it’s led by the Chippewa County Land Conservation Department, tucked away in the basement of the county courthouse.
Seth Ebel is their process engineer.
Ebel: “When the companies do want to use polyacrylamide, we have a process set up, which says you need to keep track of how much flocculant [cleaning agent] you’re using. We want that reported at the end of the year in an annual report, and then [in] any waste materials generated at the site, we do tests for acrylamide. Also, we do testing of any settling ponds: we install a monitoring well and do groundwater testing down-gradient of that.”
Ebel says after two years of testing they haven't found any acrylamide in the water or the leftover mud. He acknowledges that’s not the final word, but says they feel very good about the results.
That’s good news for frac sand miners in Chippewa County. Brian Wurtzel is the superintendent for Superior Silica Sands Wash Plant in New Auburn. He says they’ve been working with the county to prove their process and chemicals are harmless: “It has been tested, and that’s why we do our well sampling. We haven’t had any hits on the acrylamide in our groundwater today and we’ve been here two and half years.”
While Chippewa County's efforts are a start, most everybody involved from regulators to concerned citizens agree that more study is needed to find out exactly how this chemical breaks down and how it moves through the groundwater.