The controversial petroleum and natural gas pumping process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has strong roots within Wisconsin’s sandy soil.
Environmental activist group 350 Stevens Point is drawing attention to sand mines in western Wisconsin that currently hold 75 percent of the frac sand market throughout the United States.
During fracking, millions of gallons of fresh water and chemicals are mixed with thousands of tons of sand. The mixture is injected at high pressure into the earth, and the pressure of the liquid against the rock creates fractures deep underground.
The sand is essential to the process because it holds the fractures open while natural gas and petroleum are pumped out.
Some consider fracking to be the most efficient way to obtain natural gas, which is said to be the cleanest fossil fuel. Others think the process threatens our fresh water supplies and needs more regulation.
“350 Stevens Point is primarily concerned with the question of climate change,” said Bob Gifford, the treasurer of the Wisconsin Green Party.
“We’re concerned with sand mining in Wisconsin because it not only consumes immense amounts of energy. It’s also demolishing a lot of land in Wisconsin,” Gifford said.
350 will visit a frac sand operation near Black River Falls and attend a town meeting in Hixton where a company named Unimin will propose the construction of a new sand mine.
If the town approves, the company will use heavy equipment to extract immense amounts of sand from the landscape, load it onto trucks or rail cars and ship it hundreds of miles to the nearest fracking operation.
Cailie Kafura, the president of 350 Stevens Point, explained how Wisconsin is indirectly supporting fracking and the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.
“We’re the middle men,” Kafura said. “We’re trying to stop that.”
Kafura and 350 are focused on divestment from fossil fuels. The student organization is part of a larger activist organization.
350 aims to lower carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million, which is considered the level needed to stabilize climate conditions.
Wisconsin’s sand resources have become a direct, driving force in the fracking process, which adds to the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, industrial sand, which is used to obtain oil, has been produced in Wisconsin for more than 40 years.
“The newest wells they’re doing take ten thousand tons of sand,” Gifford said. “It’s an entire train full. They’re going down to the bedrock. I haven’t seen any plan for restoration.”
Public safety concerns people living near mines.. Airborne silica dust from the enormous quantities of sand can blow over nearby homes. The dust is a known carcinogen that can cause lung problems.
“How much emphysema and lung disease could this cause?” Gifford said. “No one knows.”
Kafura reinforces 350’s activist orientation and encourages people to learn about this issue.
“This isn’t just some words being thrown around,” Kafura said. “A lot of people don’t realize how this affects them personally.”
According to Gifford, it is not apparent that the Wisconsin DNR is trying to slow down the creation of industrial frac sand mines in the state.
“That’s pretty infuriating for people living in the western counties,” Gifford said.