Mount Frack,
© forwardonclimate via Flickr
“Mount Frack,” a 3-story high pile of frack sand in Winona, Minnesota on the Mississippi River. This mountain of carcinogenic silica (frac) sand was right across the street from an organic produce market and bakery. In the background of this February 11, 2013 photo is the historic Winona County Courthouse.
Despite complaints of asthma and studies proving groundwater contamination, most residents next to frac sand mines don't have any protection from industrial toxins.

The hydraulic fracturing movement has already taken off in the U.S., expanding an industry that requires the mining of silica sand, the drilling of oil and natural gas wells and the storage of toxic fracking wastewater.

Yet in the midst of the boom, Americans are still not sure how the expanding industry is impacting their health. Scientific data is still in the collection phase, and independent tests don't bode well for those living in the midst of the boom.

Now, years after the industry has been introduced, Minnesota is considering air quality mining to detect whether the silica sand mining industry is presenting a threat to area residents' health.

States like Minnesota and Wisconsin have become targets of the fracking industry, as they possess deposits of silica sand, a component of the fracking process. To frack a well, a combination of chemicals, silica sand and water is shot deep into the earth to break up and access oil and gas deposits.

The "frac sand" mining industry has created concern among those living in communities that have recently been turned into mining boom towns, as the impact of silica sand particles on local residents' health is unknown. What is known, however, is that silica sand causes silicosis. For those working in the mines, strict regulations are imposed - yet for those living next door, there are none.

While mining has been occurring for a few years, Minnesota is still in the planning phases for its first air quality monitoring studies. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is proposing erecting an air quality monitoring system on the roof of a community center - one that would not only monitor silica sand particle presence, but also air pollution caused by the increased diesel truck traffic.

The move in Minnesota is similar to those carried out in traditional fracking states. Studies conducted on groundwater in Pennsylvania have emerged this year, exposing contamination years after the industry was given a key to the state's resources.

"Residents have seen devastating impacts"

The proposal to monitor the industry's impact on air quality - and ultimately health - is a welcome one for those who have long lobbied against the industry on the basis of health concerns.

The proposal could also be a victory for those advocating for research into the impacts of the industry, but it's not a slam dunk.

In August, the Winona, MN planning commission tabled a measure that would have required testing on the ambient air near frac sand mining sites. The proposal now on the table would monitor air quality in town, where the main threat is posed by trucks transporting uncovered frac sand through town.

In March, a Minnesota Environmental Quality Board study found that "perhaps the best conclusion is that there is not enough known about the relatively recent phenomenon of the demand for silica sand for fracking regarding the long term effects of sand mining on local or regional communities."

That was after an unsuccessful lobby campaign on behalf of southern Minnesota residents, who called on state legislators to issue a temporary moratorium until a full environmental and health assessment of the industry could be conducted.

The EQB is responsible for conducting environmental assessments on mines before they're approved - yet residents say those assessments must include air quality monitoring, to ensure safety. In September, the Land Stewardship Project presented the EQB with a citizens report on the industry, a document that stated residents' concerns.

In neighboring Wisconsin, where the industry has exploded, there's still a battle over air quality monitoring. In 10 years, more than 120 silica sand mines popped up, without prior environmental assessments.

"Southeast Minnesota residents have seen the devastating impacts the frac sand mining industry has had on rural communities in western Wisconsin over the past several years," the citizens report states. "As has been well documented, air and water have been polluted, farmland and landscapes destroyed, the integrity of public officials and public processes severely undermined, local economies threatened, and quality of life diminished, all for the benefit of corporate oil and gas interests."

The impact on air quality has been documented by one state college professor, who has taken it upon himself to do what he feels officials in the state of Wisconsin failed to accomplish.

"We know after years of research of the people who work in the [sand mining] industry that it is a disease that takes its toll on the workers," Crispin Pierce, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who is leading the way in studies relating to the potential impact of community sand exposure, told Mint Press News.

Pierce said there's plenty of reason to believe that those living near mines should be concerned, as the necessary studies to indicate the true impact on their health have not been conducted. Meanwhile, Wisconsin residents living near frac sand sites continue to complain of health problems, including asthma.

Industry won't budge on groundwater contamination

For frac sand communities, it's asthma. For fracking communities, it's dead livestock.

"The Pennsylvania farmers I spoke with have lost cows, calves, a horse, a couple dozen chickens," Mike Di Paola wrote in a commentary for Bloomberg News. "Many of the animals succumb in the same way: seizure-like symptoms, gasping for breath and a quick wasting away. A Rottweiler and a Dalmatian also fell ill and died."

The farmers blame the fracking industry.

Pennsylvania is a hotspot for the fracking industry. With the industry booming only a few years ago, the state is now home to more than 6,000 fracking wells and perhaps even more complaints.

The industry moved quickly into the state to access the Marcellus Shale, a formation estimated to hold more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to Geoscience News and Information. Permits for fracking wells were provided like other traditional gas well permits - but fracking is different.

The use of carcinogenic chemicals, some of which are unknown, creates a possibility of groundwater contamination. Monitoring near fracking wells for cases of this, however, didn't come until the industry was in full swing - and it was largely done after complaints from area residents and farmers.

A Duke University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July indicated those living close to fracking wells in the state were experiencing elevated levels of methane in their drinking water.

The study found that water in the homes situated less than a mile from fracking wells contained six times the level of methane than homes outside of that area. Traces of methane and isotopes revealed to head researcher, Robert Jackson, a chemical engineer at Duke University, that the methane was produced deep underground in the Marcellus Shale, eliminating the argument that elevated levels were caused by microorganisms in the groundwater.

The study used 141 drinking water samples from throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, located atop the Marcellus Shale formation. Propane was detected in 10 of those samples, all of which were less than one kilometer from fracking sites.

At issue in these cases is the integrity of the wells used for fracking. Yet until industry is forced to recognize groundwater contamination, the studies only serve as a tool for those opposed to the industry to lobby for its alteration.

"Our studies demonstrate that the integrity of gas wells, as well as variations in local and regional geology, play major roles in determining the possible risk of groundwater impacts from shale gas development. As such, they must be taken into consideration before drilling begins," said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry at Duke University, said in a press release.

The report came in the midst of an environmental protection study intended to evaluate groundwater contamination links to fracking. This year, a preliminary report on the impact of groundwater contamination was released. It stated that no links between groundwater contamination and fracking in Pennsylvania had been discovered at the time of the release, but noted the study had not concluded.