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Frac sand: what is it, why mine it, why the opposition (10/19/2011)

Photo by Sarah Squires
     Rich Mikrut grabs a handful of sand from a large mound outside his Winona operation. Mikrut will transport the frac sand to be used in hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas and oil.


At first glance, the sugary pile of sand looks ready for a beach. But this sand is destined for a more industrial and controversial purpose. And while it carries the potential promise of helping to harvest a lucrative energy source it has elicited concerns over its use.

Economic impacts

Hemker has been harvesting sand for other purposes for years -- the more jagged varieties for cement and asphalt, sand for things like glasses, bottles, windows. With frac sand, profits are similar to that from sand sold for glass.

But frac sand demand has taken off as the natural gas and oil extraction industry using hydraulic fracturing has grown in recent years. For Hemker and Mikrut, it means two or three prospective buyers coming to town for samples a day, regular calls from folks with southern drawls asking, “Ya’ll got any sand?”

The rise in demand for frac sand has not all been met with U.S. production. Some hydraulic fracturing in the country is actually importing an alternative, ceramic material from China to meet the demands for frac sand, said Stephen Doerr, a consultant for several proposed mining projects in southwestern Winona county.

Hemker and Mikrut would like to harness that demand for their growing business, and say the rise of the frac sand industry is an incredible opportunity for the Winona area. Since the frac sand operation really began taking off in June, the two entrepreneurs say they have employed about 50 truck drivers and about 14 other employees. And, “It’s going to grow,” said Mikrut. “These are rather high-paying jobs.”

Once the operation is set up at Mikrut’s McConnon Drive property, where the sand will be washed, screened and loaded onto semis and rail cars, more jobs will be created.

“We feel it is a huge opportunity in Winona,” said Mikrut, adding that the economy is not recovering very fast on its own. “Someone has to do something about bringing the jobs here,” he said. “We have to find something that there’s a demand for.”

And Mikrut said it’s not just about the local economy, but the country as a whole. The frac sand has helped the U.S. natural gas and oil industries grow, he said, and that growth signifies steps toward a more energy-independent nation. “[Hydraulic fracturing] is a technology now that allows us to extract the oil and gas from the earth in a cost effective way.”

As the Winona area sees more proposals for frac sand related industries, such as the three mining operations facing permitting hearings this week with Winona County, fears about what the operations could pose for neighbors and others are rising. Hemker says the operations are hardly different from the sand operations that have been going on for decades. It’s just a differently shaped grain of sand, and a relatively new industry that folks are still trying to understand.

For now, Mikrut and Hemker say they have been working hard to adjust operations in order to alleviate those concerns, and hope that people will gather all of the information before jumping to conclusions about the frac sand industry. Right now, their work is just a “start up,” just the beginning of what the operation will one day be, and growth is on the horizon. “You crawl, you walk,” said Mikrut. “And then you run.”

Frac sand

“Frac” sand is similar to that found in a child’s sandbox, according to Robert Hemker.

Hemker and Rich Mikrut are using the sand for another purpose altogether – one they think will be profitable for themselves as well as Winona. The pair plan to wash and transport sand for use in hydraulic fracturing – a process where sand and water are injected into rock at high pressure, causing fractures in the rock. The sand helps to hold the fractures open to allow the flow of gas or oil. This sand has been termed frac sand.

“It’s just river sand and bank sand,” Hemker said. “You lay on the beach – it’s all frac sand.”

Hemker and Mikrut started washing and transporting frac sand in June.

Hemker is obtaining the sand from La Crosse County and washing and screening it to remove impurities. After the sand is processed, Mikrut and his team dry the sand and will load it onto railcars headed for Texas, Pennsylvania and other states waiting to use the sand in natural gas retrieval. They anticipate processing and transporting 10,000 tons of the sand each month.

They will receive about $20 a ton, according to initial estimates. Hemker said he anticipates frac sand will amount to about 10 percent of his business.

Sand mining

The world is covered with sand, and sand is good for hundreds of uses and is mined world-wide. Of the industrial sand and gravel sold, according to Thomas P. Dolley on the Centers for Disease Control website, “about 35% was consumed as glassmaking sand, and about 19%, as foundry sand . Frac sand and sand for well packing and cementing consumed about 12% of industrial sand and gravel production. Other important uses were building products (10%) and abrasive sand (3%).”

Dolley, the U.S. Geological Survey dimension stone commodity specialist, also wrote, “In almost all cases, silica mining uses open pit or dredging methods with standard mining equipment. Except for temporarily disturbing the immediate area while operations are active, sand and gravel mining usually has limited environmental impact.”

Safety concerns

Some residents living in neighborhoods near the frac sand washing and transporting operations are concerned.

“[Mikrut is] dumping the silica sand uncovered on the ground,” said area resident Marilyn Bjorlo. “It needs to be covered because of the particles that fly in the air on windy days. They are a health hazard that can cause COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), cardiovascular disease, lung disease – and it doesn’t show up right away.”

According to the Bjorlos, dust was getting into their home and onto their vehicles as well.

Joe Bjorlo has lived in the area since 1972.

“Up until three years ago it was a nice, peaceful, quiet, clean neighborhood,” he said. “The last three years have been nothing but noise, dirt, dust, interruptions and house shaking because of the equipment he’s using.”

While Mikrut constructed a fence, the Bjorlos say it is not solving the problem.

“We don’t even hang our clothes outside anymore because it’s too dirty,” Joe Bjorlo said. “Trucks are dumping sand. On a windy day, this stuff is flying all over.”

Silicosis-related illness

Crystalline silica is a component of sand. Silicosis occurs when dust containing crystalline silica is inhaled over an extended period of time.

The disease can result in lung fibrosis, emphysema, pulmonary tuberculosis and can frequently become fatal.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified inhaled crystalline silica as a Group 1 human lung carcinogen.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists as sources of exposure: Sandblasting for surface preparation; Crushing and drilling rock and concrete; Masonry and concrete work (e.g., building and road construction and repair); Mining/tunneling; demolition work; Cement and asphalt pavement manufacturing.”

Stephen Doerr, consultant for the three mining proposals before the County Planning Commission this week, says that “silicosis” resulting from the inhalation of crystalline silica isn’t an issue with these kinds of operations because the product they seek is a whole grain of frac sand. “Crystalline silica,” he said, is broken up pieces of silica sand. The way frac sand is used requires that each grain be whole and circular, so there is no breaking of the product like there is in sand blasting and foundry operations.”

Marilyn remains concerned.

“It is dangerous,” she said. “We have children on this block. We have elderly, retired people. Winona is [potentially] going to be surrounded by these silica sand operations.”

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) visits Hemker’s operation twice a year to perform air quality testing.

“Dust issues are coming from the traffic... not from the frac sand,” Mikrut said.

He said they plan to devise methods to minimize the amount of dust created by trucks coming up and down the gravel road by applying tree sap or bees wax or installing pavement.

“There are hazards to anything if they get too much exposure,” Mikrut said. “It is kind of a new industry, so we are also learning.”

They also hope to eventually cover the sand, so it does not blow away with the wind.

And employees working with the sand after it has dried wear respirators as a protective safety measure, according to Hemker.



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