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Wisconsin County Board Approves Frac Sand Mine Moratorium

Aug 22, 2013

Frac sand mining is a process in which sand is mined for use in hydraulic fracturing—otherwise known as fracking, a highly controversial natural gas drilling process. The use of silica sand is also a divisive topic, as the effects of fracking and silica sand in fracking have been tied to an array of serious health and environmental effects.

Tremealeau County, Wisconsin, has issued more frac sand mining permits than any other Minnesota or Wisconsin county in the past three years, according to The StarTribune. Now, the potential one-year moratorium on expanding frac sand mining in that county and allowing the creation of new sand facilities will allow a period to consider potential adverse health effects on humans.

“I’m very pleased,” said Sally Miller, county board member and resolution author, according to The StarTribune. “This is going to slow things down and give us a chance to catch our breath.”

Those agreeing with the plan say it will allow time to consider if sand mining is harming human health, an issue that remained unanswered while the county granted approval to 26 companies that have been mining and processing silica sand on 4,733 acres.

“It would give the county some time to research the health issues and take a closer look,” Kevin Lien, director of Trempealeau’s Environment and Land Use Committee, told The StarTribune. “Right now the public has questions that we can’t answer.”

The moratorium commences on August 30; Tremealeau County is not the only county or township ceasing operations, at least temporarily, to review public concerns. Frac sand mining is a growing industry in that area, with over 125 mines, processing plants, and rail sites, The StarTribune wrote.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency noted that it began receiving public inquiries in 2010 concerning the mining of silica sand for use in fracking; southeastern and south-central Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin have large sand deposits that meet fracking specifications. Mining for these deposits has been ongoing in that area for many years; however, new issues based on the quantity, type, and depth of mining have been growing. In fact, residents near these silica sand projects have contacted state and local governmental agencies with concerns about potential health risks tied to silica, including silicosis.

A recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study found that workers at some fracking sites are being exposed to high levels of dangerous silica, which can lead to the serious lung disease silicosis. NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have expressed concerns over the effects of silica on workers in the fracking industry, and significant concerns exist that this hazard extends to area residents.

Fracking uses a cocktail of fresh water, sand, and hundreds of chemicals that, with the use of a high-powered drill, are injected underground through a long, horizontal well to reach a shale formation typically about 2 miles below the earth’s surface. During fracking, the one key additive to fracking water is sand—or silica—which is used to open small fissures in the tight shale formations. Sand comprises about 10 percent of the mixture; fracking sand contains about 99 percent silica. In any given drilling site, upwards of 3 million to 4 million pounds of silica are used.

Fracking critics say the process devastates the environment and contaminates groundwater, underground water aquifers, and fresh water supplies. Groundwater contamination has been a major fracking issue; however, the OSHA warning concerning dangerous silica levels adds an important component to the fracking debate.

Respirable crystalline silica is tiny enough to enter the lungs’ gas-exchange regions, OSHA-NIOSH explained. This can lead to silicosis and has been linked to a number of cancers. Silicosis’ latency period is not fixed and depends on how, and for how long, exposure occurred. According to OSHA, the silicosis latency period can last anywhere from a few months—in acute overexposure situations—to decades, for exposures considered low to moderate.

Overexposure to respirable crystalline silica, which has long been known to cause silicosis, has been the focus of lawsuits for years.

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