Frac sand health fears rise as mining booms in Wisconsin

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Alison Dirr/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Sunday, October 6, 2013

NEW AUBURN — Frances Sayles is cleaning her counters and vacuuming her home more often in an attempt to keep a never-ending stream of sand at bay. But it is not just the cleaning that concerns her. She also worries about her health.

“It bothers me because I have asthma and I have trouble breathing at night, especially,” said Sayles, a retired certified nursing assistant. “I'm a very healthy person other than that.”

Sayles lives with her husband, Dean, in the village of New Auburn. There are two frac sand processing plants on the edges of the village, which straddles Barron and Chippewa counties.

The state has at least 115 permitted or operational frac sand mines and processing plants, according to a tally by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The state's sand is in demand for use in the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Like some other west-central Wisconsin residents, the Sayles are frustrated with the Department of Natural Resources' lack of a comprehensive approach to addressing concerns surrounding potential health problems from crystalline silica dust.

“The DNR ain't helping us — that's for sure,” Dean Sayles said.

Now some residents, academics, local government officials and even a frac sand producer have begun taking action.

In New Auburn, the village's preschool through grade-12 school recently upgraded its air filters as a precautionary measure after residents expressed concern about fine crystalline silica dust, which is known to cause serious health problems in workers.

Trempealeau County, in western Wisconsin, recently voted to temporarily halt permitting of additional frac sand facilities so it could study potential health effects.

“Answers. We just want answers,” Trempealeau County Supervisor Sally Miller said.

The DNR and state Department of Health Services say they lack the resources to find definitive answers. They also argue that current efforts to control dust are sufficient.

“Unfortunately, resources aren't there to do large-scale studies,” said Jeff Johnson, an environmental engineering supervisor for the DNR.

In August 2011, the DNR surveyed existing research and other states' actions to mitigate health effects of crystalline silica exposure. At that time, the agency concluded that more research was needed.

Some industry officials question the outcry over potential health effects.

Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, said companies should answer “genuine” questions, but added that some mine opponents are “creating a disingenuous scenario of panic and fear.”

But for many, the issue has not been resolved.


Decades of research in worker populations has proven the serious health hazards of inhaling fine crystalline silica particles in high levels over long periods of time. Little is known, however, about whether surrounding communities are exposed to disease-causing levels.

“I think it's important for us to understand exposure,” said Dr. Matthew Keifer, a physician of  occupational medicine at Marshfield Clinic. “That is really the most important thing to me, because if it's not a concern, we can put people's minds at rest.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health notes that occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica is linked to silicosis — an incurable lung disease — in addition to lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and airway diseases. Workers in such industries as construction, sandblasting, mining and glass manufacturing are at risk of exposure.

At the end of August, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed lowering the exposure limit for crystalline silica in the workplace to prevent silicosis.

And while studies in workers do not necessarily predict effects on the broader population, the neighboring state of Minnesota used those data to set a guideline for respirable crystalline silica exposure outside the workplace to protect human health.

Minnesota's Department of Health established a guideline in July 2013 that recommends exposure no higher than 3 micrograms per cubic meter of particulates 4 micrometers in diameter or less, so-called PM4, the size that worries health experts. The average human hair is between 50 and 70 micrometers in diameter.

In Wisconsin, EOG Resources, a Texas-based company, is monitoring air emissions for crystalline silica at PM4. Preliminary data from its four facilities in Chippewa and Barron counties show much lower concentrations than the Minnesota guideline recommends, according to preliminary results released by the DNR.

The company declined multiple requests for comment.


Some frac sand mining critics question whether the DNR's regulations and enforcement are protecting public health.

Midwest Environmental Advocates, a Madison-based public interest law firm, has challenged the DNR air permits for two Trempealeau County frac sand facilities.

Budinger said if there is a problem, it is not due to a lack of regulation but of enforcement: “The industry is under strict regulations and has been for many decades.”

The DNR oversees 13 industrial monitors that collect particles 10 micrometers in diameter or less, so-called PM10, at sand mines and processing plants. The monitors show all of the facilities' emissions are well below the Environmental Protection Agency's particulate concentration standards, Johnson said.

But health experts are concerned about smaller particles that are not specifically monitored in the ambient air outside frac sand facilities. And monitors measure only total particulates in the air, not specifically crystalline silica.

“Our initial results suggest that there are times when the levels are above EPA standards,” said Crispin Pierce, an associate professor in the Environmental Public Health program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Many concerned about potential health effects cite Pierce's work as evidence that understanding exposure is a pressing issue. But Budinger and others question the validity of Pierce's findings.

UW-Eau Claire professor Kent Syverson, who has worked as a consultant for the frac sand industry, said Pierce's research “does not produce meaningful quantitative data.”


In November 2011, a group of 10 citizens, including Pierce from UW-Eau Claire, submitted a petition to the DNR requesting that, among other things, the agency list respirable crystalline silica as a hazardous air pollutant.

The DNR denied the petition in January 2012.

Two years after the initial requests, there are still no conclusive answers to the questions weighing on residents' minds. And for now, back in New Auburn, the Sayles are still waiting.

“I don't know what to do,” Frances Sayles said. “Just live with it, I guess.”

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reporter Tegan Wendland and Chetek Alert News Editor Ryan Urban contributed to the reporting of this story.

This project was supported by The Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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