By Michael Fields
Special to the Caledonia Argus
More than 250 people, including two Houston County commissioners and the county’s environmental services director, attended a frac sand mining meeting at the Four Seasons Community Center in Caledonia Nov. 29.
They came to hear Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, Professor Emeritus of Earth and Environmental Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Rodolfo, who now lives in Viroqua, Wis., who calls himself an “environmental geologist,” said this region contains some of the best frac sand in the world. So good, in fact, that Saudi Arabia imports it from Wisconsin.
“I’m flat out against frac sand mining,” he said, “and I’m flat out against fracking in general.” Fracking, also known as “hydraulic fracturing,” refers to a mining process used in other parts of the country to extract oil and natural gas from geological formations deep beneath the earth. Frac sand, also called “silica sand,” is a key ingredient used in this process.
But extracting that sand creates hazards that we’re only beginning to understand, he said.
“Fine, crystalline silica particles are carcinogenic,” Rodolfo said, “and there are no generally accepted ways to monitor [this fine dust] in ambient air.”
He also said that many of the chemicals used to wash frac sand are known carcinogens and other chemicals (acrylamide and DADMAC) break down in the environment over time to become cancer-causers. And, because of Houston County’s unique “Karst terrain,” these chemicals can easily seep down into aquifers. The Jordan aquifer contains some of the best frac sand, but it is also the aquifer from which the cities of Caledonia and Spring Grove draw their drinking water.
Mining interests in the area claim that frac sand mining would be good for Houston County because of the jobs that would be created. But Dr. Rodolfo said the experience in Wisconsin has shown that relatively few jobs are generated and many of those that were went to people outside the area.
Before beginning his unpaid and somewhat academic, two-hour slide presentation, it was pointed out that mining interests also have geologists who say that frac sand mining is nothing to worry about and can be done safely.
“Conflicts between petroleum geologists, mining geologists and environmental geologists will always exist because of competing interests,” he said.
But Rodolfo believes that one of the most insidious aspects of frac sand mining has nothing to do with geology, environmental degradation or health hazards.
“It pits neighbor against neighbor, and I really hate that,” he said.
The event was sponsored by the local pro-environment group, Houston County Protectors. This group was instrumental in pushing through Houston County’s current moratorium on frac sand mining – a moratorium that is set to expire in February unless it is extended.