Mon October 7, 2013
Sand Mining Health Effects: 'What We Need Is Monitoring'
There are now about 100 sand mine facilities in Wisconsin — they bring jobs and money into small communities. But as the number of frac sand mines grows in the state, so do questions about its effects on public health. In part one of a two-part series, Tegan Wendland, with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, looks at a by-product of the process: dust.
Frances Sayles lives in New Auburn, which has five sand mine facilities within a four mile radius. She says the community has changed since the sand companies moved in, and so has her life.
Frances Sayles: “Hello, how’re you doing?”
Tegan Wendland: “I’m good. This is your place, huh?”
FS: “Yes, it is.”
TW: “And it looks like you swept it today?”
FS: “Yes I did.”
TW: “What does it usually look like in here?”
FS: “Sand, lots of sand.”
Sayles, a retired nursing assistant who has lived in New Auburn for 25 years, says she’s worried about how the dust could be affecting her health. Her asthma has gotten worse and though she’s considered moving, her family can’t afford to.
UW-Eau Claire professor, Crispin Pierce, says she is right to worry. The most dangerous dust is invisible.
Pierce: “We know that the small particles that are generated from sand mining and operating — things like sand blasting — are really quite toxic. They cause silicosis, they cause lung cancer, they cause cardiovascular disease — now with the proliferation of mines, we don’t have a lot of good information about people living or working or traveling near sand mines.”
Pierce is trying to fill holes in the research himself, but his methods are controversial. He uses small, low-cost monitors instead of industrial ones, and sets them up wherever landowners let him. He says that while the DNR is monitoring some of the frac sand sites, it’s not enough. There are only 13 monitors for about 100 mines and processing plants.
Some activists say industry has grown so fast, the government hasn't been able to keep up in protecting people from its potential impacts.
DNR air official Jeff Johnson says, however, that while his agency has added a few new frac sand positions, it still doesn't have the money to research health impacts.
Johnson: “We mainly focus on inspections at major sources of air pollution, so: foundries, power plants, things of that nature. A lot of industrial sand mines are what we would term 'minor sources' and unfortunately we didn’t have a whole lot of funding in that part of the program.”
Duane Wilke is Environmental Health and Safety Manager at Superior Silica in New Auburn. As he walks through the plant, he says his facility is doing enough to keep the dust down. Workers change the plant air filters and they keep piles of sand wet so it won't blow away.
Wilke: “My daughter is 15. She goes to the school in New Auburn. I would never do anything to harm the air quality, [or] to harm my own daughter in the school.”
State Senator Kathleen Vinehout says Superior Silica might be doing a good job reducing the chances of blowing sand, but the problem is that the DNR doesn’t enforce standards like this for the industry as a whole, which is why she's proposing legislation to fund more DNR inspectors.
Vinehout: “What we need is monitoring at the edges of the mines, and continuous monitoring, so it’s not just one time but [rather] continuous information that we’re receiving on what the problems are on a particular site.”
In the meantime, Vinehout says, Wisconsin should look to neighboring states for guidance. The Minnesota Department of Health has set up a guideline to protect people from the dust, and the University of Iowa plans to study the potential health risk for communities near the mines.
In Wisconsin, EOG Resources, a private company, is studying air quality at four of its facilities. The company declined to comment on the study. Preliminary results show low concentrations of the dust.
Vinehout and State Representative Chris Danou are working on legislation this session to increase funding and staffing for the DNR.
Tegan Wendland works with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
Economy and Business