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Impacts of frac sand mining

An often overlooked consequence of the process of hydraulic fracturing is the growing demand for frac sand and an unprecedented expansion of sand mining in such areas as western Wisconsin or southeastern Minnesota in the United States. Many local residents are organising to campaign against those developments because they are concerned about the impacts of frac sand mining on local communities.

Thomas W. Pearson conducted some ethnographic research in Wisconsin where sand mining had had a long history before fracking came into the picture. However, with the onset of fracking in the US, within 2 years (i.e. by 2012), the number of frac sand operations in the state more than doubled, making Wisconsin the biggest producer of frac sand nationally. Sand mines, processing plants, railroad transload facilities are all part of this heavily industrial process with some of the mines operating 24 hours a day.

Here is a bullet-point summary of some of the main impacts of those operations that Pearson outlines:

destruction of landscape – the disappearance of hills and a complete transformation of the landscape from rural into a technological one, which creates a sense of dislocation, alienation and distrust;

conflicts between neighbours who received lucrative payments for leasing or selling their land to mining companies and those who did not;

concerns over air quality – silica dust is particularly harmful when inhaled in excess quantities and may pose severe health risks like silicosis or lung cancer;

impacts on surface and groundwater including spills from waste water holding ponds and concerns over chemicals used in the mining and processing of frac sand;

the unstable nature of this industry with characteristic boom-and-bust cycles; although sand mining may be economically beneficial in a shorter term, it also tends to make especially small, rural communities dependent on the industry and its vulnerabilities to fluctuating global commodity prices. Out-of-state ownership may mean that there will be few benefits that accrue to a local economy.

local officials face considerable pressure from the industry and are often unprepared to deal with powerful corporations supported by teams of lawyers and experts.


Pearson, T. W. (2013). Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin: Understanding Emerging Conflicts and Community Organizing. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 35(1), 30–40.

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