Waiting for a meeting to begin, a colleague was telling me about a recent family visit to Wisconsin. She said she was pleased by seeing her family but horrified by the impact sand mining was having on the community.

Sand mining? I am embarrassed to say I had no earthly notion of what she was talking about. I have since taken the time to do a bit of research. What I learned, in all honesty, was surprising and more than a bit disturbing.

Framing the Debate: Lector sciat

To state the obvious, sand mining is mining — whether coal, gold or sand. It is hard not to consider mining the earthly equivalent of invasive surgery — replete with all of its potential benefits and harms. It is important, therefore, to stay focused on the substance and not the emotion of so vivid a vision.

Sand mining is a potential additional cost associated with natural gas — in particular the practice of fracking. To understand the value of renewables, it is important to recognize the true — that is complete — cost of fossil alternatives. Part of the societal price to be paid for natural gas includes: the cost of remediation after the fact, prevention before it and monitoring in between. It is within this context I urge readers to consider the following.

Sand mining is big business: By the numbers

Sand is an integral element in a tremendous array of manufactured products and industrial practices ranging from cement to the production of silicon chips for PV panels and other electronics to glass manufacture and, of course, fracking. It is a $70 billion global business totaling 40 billion tons of sales.

The biggest importer of sand in recent years is Singapore. Its demand for sand has erased 2 dozen Indonesian islands, while expanding the island city-state’s territory by 130 square kilometers.

The frac sand market in the U.S. is estimated at 34.4 billion tons, representing $2.2 billion of sales. Demand is anticipated to grow by approximately 9% over the next 10 or more years.

The U S Geological Survey and industry sources estimate that between 3,000 to 9,500 tons of sand are used per natural gas fracking well. U.S. frac sand production is expected to reach 70 million tons in 2017, with a value of about $4B.

Great Lakes and Texas sands are in high demand because of their chemical purity, grain size, shape, and ease of access. These states are the largest suppliers of domestic frac sand. Wisconsin is currently the top U.S. producer, with 2014 production having reached 24 million tons. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources the state has gone from 7 to 128 mines in the span of 5 years.

It takes very little time for a processing/mining operation to ramp up production and delivery. Cadre Proppants, now part of U.S. Silica, went from 0 to 1 billion pounds of shipments to the Eagle Ford and Permian Basin fields in less than a year. Shipping that amount required 20,000 truckloads.

Fracking sands are primarily mined in an open pit process. The mining cycle starts with the removal of top soils — called overburden — and ends with backfilling the left over materials. In between, a series of processing steps occur. These include: successive washing, drying, storage and transport out of the mine.

As a referent, 130,000 tons of frac sand would fill 40,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. An Olympic pool measures 82 feet wide by 164 feet long at a minimum depth of 6.5 feet. Using these measurements it is possible to calculate a volume of 88,263 cubic feet.

Sand mining’s eco-environmental impacts

There are multiple environmental impacts attributable to frac sand mining: land; water; air; and noise. As with any open pit operation top soils are torn up to gain access to the product. Sand mining operations are large consumers of water and mining operations can impact groundwater quality and flow. Concern about the consequence of silica dust due to mining, storage and transport of frac sands have been raised. As mining operations occur exclusively in rural areas, the presence of a noisy industrial activity — often occurring 24/7 — has been cited as having a negative impact on otherwise quiet communities.

The current debate between environmental/community advocates and industry stakeholders is growing in intensity. Industry participants claim that mining operations are governed by state and federal mining regulations, including permitting requirements. Environmentalists claim that the regulations are inadequate, i.e. too lax or, as in the case of air quality, non-existent. They further claim that there is an insufficient number of personnel and other monitoring operations to truly know the environmental consequences.

Industry advocates assert that the economic benefits, e.g. jobs, investment in rural economies, support for the growth of U.S. natural gas producers, etc., must be considered in the value proposition. Citing again the fact that operations are governed by regulation and that no substantial proof has been provided of the claimed environmental harms.

In my review of the issues I have found little attention being paid to the loss of prime farmland — both during and after mining operations. Neither has much socio-economic research been conducted on the near and long-term impacts of sand mining on rural communities.

So What? So This!

Like much of the debate surrounding fracking much is not known about the actual impact — and consequently the societal cost — of sand mining. Could the worst impacts be realistically offset through regulation? Possibly.

I have suggested in the past that I am no fanboy of natural gas. I am, however, an advocate for sound policy making and suspicious of mandates based on emotion. Sand mining, like the larger natural gas question, needs to be considered on the basis of facts — tempered by social values. If natural gas is found to warrant public support, then an integrated set of regulations fair to industry and protective of public safety, health and welfare must be put in place and the resources required for continued oversight be properly allocated. If it is found lacking sufficient social value, then governments should ban the practice; and, government and industry should seek safer options, e.g. synthetic sand alternatives or less intrusive extraction methods.