Frac sand

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Frac sand are very durable and very round grains of a specific size of high purity sand. This sand is noted as being "highly specialized, crush-resistant material produced for use by the petroleum industry." Frac sand is utilized in the fracking process to produce petroleum fluids, such as oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids. Frac sand can also be a natural material made from high purity sandstone.[1] It has been estimated that since 2009 at least 100 sand mines have been developed.[2]

Processing of frac sand

As Earthworks reports:

"In order for the frack sand to effectively hold open the formation fissures, it must have a fairly uniform hardness and shape. To achieve this uniformity, the silicates must undergo further processing at a plant:

"Washing -- which involves high pressure spraying of water and dangerous chemicals on to the sand that often leaches in to the ground;

"Drying -- depositing the sand in to large rotating drums fed by hot air, powered by either combustion or natural gas;

"Screening and sorting -- sorting allows the operator to capture the sands suitable for fracking and dispose or sell the sands better suited for other purposes.[3]"

Minnesota and frac sand

Sand has been mined in Minnesota for more than a century. Round silica sand beneath the bluffs near the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin has been mined to make window glass, water filtration products and abrasives. Recently, several Minnesota communities have passed moratoriums on mining so they can study the practice, which has already impacted parts of Wisconsin. Currently the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency along with other state agencies are in the process of writing new rules for frac sand mining as part of a plan ordered by the State Legislature.[4]

Goodhue County in Minnesota has enacted frac sand moratoriums, citing a lack of studies on impacts on such mining, such as pollution and road safety.[5]

Missouri and frac sand

Energy companies say Missouri's sand is nearly pure silica, or quartz, which allows the grains to maintain their shape under the pressure thousands of feet below ground. The sand grains are also nearly spherical, allowing them to flow more easily through fractures. And the silica could be stored and transported along the Mississippi River.

According to E&E: "Missouri's sand comes from the St. Peter Sandstone, a layer of crumbly rock that extends from Minnesota to Arkansas. That same formation has helped drive a major frac sand boom in Wisconsin. At least 100 Midwestern sand mines rely on the sandstone.

"The major player in Missouri is Mississippi Sand LLC, a venture formed in 2008. The company has seen tremendous success with its quarry near Festus, Mo., and is looking to develop a new mine near Starved Rock State Park in Ottawa, Illinois.

"But that plan is facing a level of environmental opposition the company has not seen in Missouri. Environmental groups say such mines pose health risks, particularly for workers who might inhale silica. If inhaled, the material can lead to silicosis, an irreversible lung disease that has been linked to lung cancer."

Besides Mississippi Sand, other Missouri operators include Maryland-based U.S. Silica and Texas-based FTS International LLC.[6]

Nebraska and frac sand

The rise of hydraulic fracturing to enhance oil and natural gas production also boosted the demand for sand to act as a proppant to prop open shale formations.

The city of Genoa in Nance County is home to a plant that ships sand for hydraulic fracturing. From 2011 to 2014 sand production was at one million tons. The fall of oil prices in 2015 has prompted layoffs in several Nebraska frack sand companies.[7]

Wisconsin and frac sand

The Wisconsin state Department of Natural Resources issues permits for wastewater and stormwater disposals, but there are no regulations regarding air pollution from the dust drifting off sand trains heading to oil and gas fields. According to the Baltimore Examiner, frac sand mining companies seem to be targeting townships and unincorporated communities because they lack zoning rules that could contain sand mines.[8]

In 2011, some Wisconsin residents filed petitions with the state government to impose new air standards in response to concerns about increased silica dust emissions. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources rejected the petition, saying that existing state regulations addressed the residents' health concerns. But regulators said in a 2011 report that a lack of data on emissions has stymied a conclusive finding on the health effects of frac sand mining.[9]

It was reported in October 2013 that Wisconsin’s sand-mining boom could fuel fracking abroad, noting that the sand used in fracking is found in great quantities in the state.[10]

Oklahoma and frac sand

According to FracDallas: "Enron Oil and Gas, now called EOG, has requested a permit from TCEQ for a sand mining operation in Cooke County near the Red River. Its location sits immediately adjacent to Mountain Creek, a primary tributary to the Red River, at the mouth of which sits a spawning area for striped bass that thrive in Lake Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma State Line. According to EOG's application, they will use 3,700 gallons of water per minute, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, year round, and their permit application states that their operation will be 'permanent'."[11]

Health effects

According to research, silica sands are similar to asbestos, as they enter the lungs and do not leave. As Jennifer Krill of Earthworks writes, "Under a microscope, the larger grains of crystalline silica are round, but smaller pieces less than 4 microns in size resemble sharp shards of glass. This is the size that is ‘respirable’, or easily inhaled by humans. Over time, it causes a variety of respiratory problems, including silicosis, which can take as long as 50 years after exposure to appear. For years, silicosis has been thought of as an occupational hazard. Its impact is somewhat similar to exposure to asbestos, which is projected to cause half a million deaths over the next 30 years and causes illnesses with long latency periods like asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma."[12]


  1. What is Frac Sand?, accessed June 11, 2013.
  2. "Why Sand Is The Latest Front In The War On Fracking (Yes, Sand)" Christopher Hellman, Forbes, August 22, 2013.
  3. "Frac Sand Mining" Earthworks, accessed August 20, 2014.
  4. "Frac Sand Mining "Frac Sand Mining" MPR News, May 2013.
  5. "Goodhue Co. extends frac sand moratorium" Elizabeth Dunbar, MPR News, August 6, 2013.
  6. "Mo. jumps into shale boom with frac sand mining," E&E, November 6, 2012.
  7. "Sand industry — including Nebraska plant — feels the pain as oil prices drop" By Cole Epley, World-Herald, October 23, 2015.
  8. Doug Hissom, "Sand mining coming to a town near you," Post-Examiner, May 13, 2012.
  9. "MINING: Fracking fuels sand boom in the Midwest," E&E, May 15, 2012.
  10. "Wisconsin’s sand-mining boom could fuel fracking abroad" John Upton, Grist, October 14, 2013.
  11. "Frac Sand Mining Issues" FracDallas, accessed August 26, 2013.
  12. "In Frac Sand Land, Residents Have Little Protection Against Silica Dust Exposure" Jennifer Krill, Earthworks, June 24, 2013.

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