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Monday, August 1, 2011

Sand mining surges in Wisconsin

From an article by by Jason Smathers, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, posted on WisconsinWatch.org:

State feeds national fracking boom; health, environmental concerns rise

TUNNEL CITY — Retiree Letha Webster’s voice briefly cracks when she talks about leaving the town she and her husband have called home for 56 years. But she says selling her land to an out-of-state mining company was the best move she could have made.

The 84-year old was approached in late June by a Connecticut-based company, Unimin, that planned to build a sand mine in the area and was paying a good price for houses in the way.

Webster’s struggle to maintain her home and 8.5 acres of land while caring for her husband, Gene, who has Alzheimer’s, meant she would need to move soon anyway. Webster, whose property was valued last year at $147,400, says she has agreed to sell for more than double that amount: $330,000.

Others in the area are selling, too. . . .

This western Wisconsin community is in the midst of a land rush — call it a sand rush — fueled by exploding nationwide demand for fine silica sand used in hydraulic fracturing. In this process, nicknamed “fracking,” sand, water and chemicals are blasted into wells, creating fissures in the rock and freeing hard-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas. . . .

[Fracking has been a contentious issue in most states that have fracking operations. Critics argue that chemicals used in fracking may be contaminating water supplies. And it's the subject of a documentary titled Gasland.]

Health effects feared
Residents in several Wisconsin counties say they have been alarmed by the speed with which mining companies have snapped up land.

Some communities lack local land-use controls such as zoning that would allow them to manage the land rush. And despite concerns about the health and environmental impacts of such facilities, the state Department of Natural Resources has only a few regulations for sand mining operations.

Mining companies must file a reclamation plan with the county that spells how much land will be disturbed and how it will be rejuvenated once mining is completed, and they apply to be covered under a general DNR permit covering stormwater and wastewater. Other permits regulating air emissions and groundwater use may be required from the DNR.

But none specifically limits how much crystalline silica gets into the air, the main health worry for those living near the facilities. Drew Bradley, Unimin’s senior vice president of operations, says that while the risks of crystalline silica are well known in an occupational setting, there’s no evidence that ambient exposure poses any threat.

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