Sand Crisis – The Hidden Environmental Impact Of Fracking

[image description: a sand mining operation with dozens of pumps that extract frac sand.]
We have a global sand crisis that is impacting the United States, and close to home here in Pennsylvania, more than the public knows. Silica is a precious and finite resource that is increasingly more valuable to those invested in natural gas and fracking projects. Silica is preferred for fracking because the small particle size allows it to hold cracks open while drilling takes place. It is so lucrative that a sand business owner in Iowa began selling to fracking companies because they pay double what a glass buyer would pay — to the tune of about $100,000 a day. Part of the problem is that other industries that rely on sand — glass makers, for example — can’t get the sand they need because businesses like the Iowa mine owner can sell it to the fracking industry for much more.

Why Sand?

Globally, sand is used for everything from the MacBook I’m typing on, the concrete used for new buildings, glass, and so much more. Historically, it was a key resource that advanced civilization by its use to create cement, glass, and bricks. Every civilization needs sand resources of varying quality to produce goods we use every day and don’t think about them requiring sand for production.

At What Cost?

Sand mining is a global crisis that impacts the environment and the living beings in that environment.  We don’t have to look much further than our own state of Pennsylvania, but the midwestern states are also full of sand mining and fracking operations. There is plenty of valuable silica in these areas, and little public knowledge about the environmental and public health issues caused by sand mining operations. Sand mining workers are often in direct contact with silica, and inhaling it is a serious hazard.

When silica is transported by truck, dumped, or otherwise used, the particles create a dust storm, and those particles affect air quality. Silica sand is fine, and the dust from it increases lung cancer risk, emphysema, and certain immune-system diseases. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration describes it as a “serious threat” to 2 million American workers in related industries.

Silica is fine, and it travels with the wind. This means that silica mining operations are creating dust that affects every living thing near it, including agriculture livestock, water supplies, and the humans who have to live near the mines or work in them.

[Image description: Aerial view of oil and gas field over Jonah Field, Wyoming. Networked paths connect across the expanse of brown land. Copyright of Ecoflight, CC]

Water Safety

Businesses involved in fracking have complicated policies at the state level, but little to no oversight at the federal level. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act policies exempt gas and oil drilling operations from being required to disclose chemicals used and other “trade secrets” that impact the environment. Yes, this includes sand mining operations. Industry lobbyists have little interest in protecting our water supply — because they have a greater interest in using massive amounts of water at all stages of the fracking process. Some mining facilities, like a mine in North Utica Township, use 1.25 million gallons of water per day. Processing sand strains local water tables, which puts everyday citizens at risk.

Taking Action Against Sand Mining And Fracking

Fracking and sand mining industries are relying on uncertainty to keep the public from knowing too much. Environmental scientists already know that sand mining is a global crisis, that it affects the United States in a profound way, and that policies need to prioritize regulation of the industry in order to protect our sand supply, air quality, and every aspect of our environment. Living in Pennsylvania, we have unique opportunities to get involved. Check out the organizations below, and be sure to follow the resources in this article to learn more about the sand crisis, what it means for us at home, those abroad, and the future of our sand supply.

Don’t Frack Pennsylvania!

This organization educates, holds citizen trainings, lobby against fracking, and provide reputable resources and research surrounding the issue of fracking. Check out their current actions page to learn more about what you can do to participate.

Pennsylvanians Against Fracking

PAF is a coalition of several groups that aim to ban fracking in Pennsylvania. They use education, pressure on policymakers, building a movement, and strengthening the voices of everyone against fracking. Click here to access their sign-on form and choose how you would like to participate or support PAF.

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