Wisconsin’s Surprising Involvement In The Fracking Boom

If you think you live far enough away from Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota to not have to worry about the local environmental impacts of the fracking boom, think again. Fracking doesn’t just affect the areas where drilling actually takes place, it affects all the areas that are home to the natural resources fracking demands. In Wisconsin, that natural resource is sand.

Sand is used as a ‘proppant’ — during fracking, the granuals hold open fractures in the rock formations, so that the natural gas can be released.

Sand mines have been a part of the Wisconsin landscape for hundreds of years, or about as long as dairy cows. Used to make pavement and for water filtration, silica sand has long been a small, but steady industry. Over the last couple of years, however, the demand for sand, and particularly, Wisconsin’s special blend, has sky-rocketed. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in 2010 there were about five frac sand mines and processing plants. Now there are somewhere on the order of 115 throughout dozens of counties in central and western Wisconsin.

The rising demand has come almost exclusively from fracking operations. The sand of the Dairy State is so sought after because it is almost pure quartz — every grain is nearly spherical and it has a high compressive strength. Minnesota, northern Illinois, and Iowa all have similar sand composition.


The rapid pace of sand mine development in Wisconsin has many environmentally-minded Midwesterners alarmed. While sand mining might seem relatively benign as these things go — like a child on the beach with a bucket — there is growing concern over the human health and environmental impacts of the industry.

As Sarah Williams, staff attorney at Midwest Environmental Advocates based in Madison, Wisconsin, explained, the fine silica from mining sites is something of a nightmare in the human lung.

“These are tiny, jagged crystals that get lodged in people’s lungs,” said Williams. “Over time, they cause a degenerative lung disease called silicosis, that has no cure and ultimately leads to death.”

The explosion in sand mining for fracking is already having adverse impacts on the region’s water supply. Since November 2011, the DNR has issued 20 notices of violation to 19 different mining companies. There have been numerous accidents in recent years, where storm water has washed massive quantities of sand into local waterways. In April 2012, sediment from a Interstate Energy Partners of Plymouth, Minnesota mine ended up in a wetland, eventually flowing into the St. Croix River, a federally protected waterway. Sand can change river pH, water flow patterns and the health of the fish and other animals that call the river, wetland or lake home.

The DNR has been quoted by multiple sources as saying that these problems are just “growing pains.”

As Wisconsin and other states struggle with the fallout from increased sand mining for fracking, it adds to the mounting evidence that the impacts of the natural gas boom will be felt far beyond the drill sites.