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Report: Rapidly Expanding Frac Sand Miners Eye NY, MA, VT, PA

Environmental Working Group

Hydraulic fracturing is responsible for a surge in domestic production of natural gas. Although the contentious process is in political limbo in New York, several upstate counties may be virgin ground for the mining of what's called "frac sand."

Activists may be breathing sighs of relief that the Empire State doesn't appear to be close to resolving whether or not it will allow hydrofracking, but environmentalists are warning New Yorkers they may have trouble breathing, if mining companies start digging for the silica sand needed by drillers for the fracking process.

Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, says where mines have been dug, the industry is exploding way ahead of any government's response and ability to regulate it. And the concerns echo the fears of fracking foes.     "Every group of citizens I speak to, I'm so shocked by how every aspect of their lives are greatly impacted by this industry. From lights on 24/7, noise, 800 trucks going by their house a day. We get calls from people whose foundations are crumbling because of blasting, yet no one will help them."

Silica particles are known to degrade air quality. Activists worry expanding sand production will lead to increased health, air and water complications in areas near the mines, which do not fall under any fracking or lack of fracking ordinances in any given community.

Heather White, executive director of Environmental Working Group, is trying to get people to understand the importance of what shale, oil and gas development means for local communities.   "Pointing to New York, and of the litigation against communities in New York, against local control, is a really important area to continue to follow up on and really focus on citizens rights to ask questions and really be aware of what's going on literally in their backyards."

Chemicals used to remove impurities from the sand have been found to contain neurotoxins and carcinogens, which can potentially enter groundwater or surface water from wastewater ponds at mining sites or from piles of sand waiting to be transported by truck to hydrofracking wells in other states.

Civil Society Institute senior energy policy advisor Grant Smith co-authored the report "Communities At Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest." He's urging people to consider the implications of frac sand mining on infrastructure, health and the economy.   "We know in terms of climate change and fracking, there could be very severe implications for that due to methane emissions from these sites. We need to have more of a thoughtful process in formulating our energy policy other than if there's a buck to be made let's go do it."

Industry analysts project demand for "frac sand" - that's spelled f-r-a-c - no "k" on the end - could jump 30 percent from 2013 to 2015, an increase of about 95 billion pounds of sand.  While Wisconsin currently is the top producer of frac sand, 12 other states including New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Masssachusetts are being eyed as potential sources of the fine sand.  Several more states are studying the process.

The Department of Environmental Conservation responded to a request for comment by email, stating that "there are no deposits of frac sand being mined in NY.   The sand used for hydraulic fracturing is extremely fine grained and of uniform size and shape.  At present, there are no known deposits of this type of sand in New York."

That DEC statement is contrary to evidence presented in the Civil Society Institute report and an accompanying map that shows several New York counties including Dutchess, Columbia, Rensselaer and Albany, as potentially harboring untapped frac sand deposits.

DEC officials volunteered this information:   A Mined Land Reclamation permit is required for all excavations and mining, from which more than 1,000 tons or 750 cubic yards, whichever is less, of a mineral is removed from the earth during twelve successive calendar months.  Information and further links about mining in New York, our permit requirements and regulatory program can be found on DEC’s website at http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/5020.html.

The process is so new to the Northeast that some local government officials and environmentalists contacted hadn't heard of it.

Calls for comment to the New York State Petroleum Council and The Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York were not returned.

Additional Reading: 

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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