When Jim and Kathy Kachel moved into their home south of Bagley, Wisconsin, overlooking the Mississippi River in fall 2007, they couldn’t see the Pattison Sand Mine directly across the river in Clayton, Iowa.
Since then, terraced layers of limestone carved into the northeast Iowa bluff have made way for more truck traffic as the mine, which occupies 750 acres — much of it underground — expands. Meanwhile, the Kachels have had to clean dust from their home.
“It’s not healthy for anybody — the environment, the wildlife, my grandchildren,” Kathy Kachel, 69, said. “Breathing that dust is like breathing glass.”
But the Kachels and others living near silica sand mines can only wonder what long-term impact tiny silica dust particles are having on their health.
That’s because public health researchers disagree on the impact the dust has on the long-term health of residents living in an near silica sand mining communities like the tiny Mississippi River town of Clayton, which is in the Iowa county by the same name, and in southwest Wisconsin.
Researchers and citizens have become concerned in recent years about the health effects because fracking, and the frac sand mining that helps drive it, only appeared on the national stage in the last 30 years. Silica-rich sand is a key ingredient in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, acting as a structural support for water and chemicals pumped into natural shale reservoirs to stimulate the production of natural gas.
“There is no standard for this highly carcinogenic dust in Wisconsin,” activist Pat Popple, 79, of Chippewa Falls, said, “and furthermore, very little supervision on the part of health and environmental authorities when reports are submitted.”
According to the Wisconsin DNR, 11 active frac mine and processing plants are in Trempeleau County where Popple resides.
Popple said she has seen symptoms of respirable silica exposure first hand near Chippewa Falls. “A teacher who taught in my building has a bad cough,” Popple said.
“When she leaves the area, the cough goes away. And yet when she comes home, it starts again. She has four air filters in her home.
“Now, her cattle are coughing.”
RESEARCH WITH DIFFERING RESULTS
According to the Pattison Sand Co. website, the Saint Peter sandstone that creates the layer of rock mined at the facility was a massive sea shore millions of years ago. The sand, tumbled over and over along that shore, resulted in quartz of “incredible spherocity and hardness” that makes this area in the frac sand mining boom, the website states.
Silica sand mining, however, produces a dangerous by-product: silica dust. Prolonged exposure to the tiny mineral particles can scar lung tissue resulting in irreversible and sometimes fatal respiratory damage. About 2 million U.S. workers remain potentially exposed to occupational silica, the American Lung Association reports.
The University of Iowa’s Occupational and Environmental Health Department conducted research in 2015 for the advocacy group Preserve Trempealeau County to determine the community risk of silica exposure in southwest Wisconsin. Researchers sampled 17 homes over 48 hours within one-half mile of active sand mining in Trempealeau County and found all silica samples to be well below the value of concern, which is 3 micrograms per cubic meter.
However, environmental events such as high winds can concentrate dust, Patrick O’Shaughnessy, co-author of this study, said.
“The issue with an atmospheric pollutant is accumulated exposure.” O’Shaughnessy, a professor in U of I occupational and environmental health department, said in an interview. “The sand mines we studied weren’t giving community members the exposure that would be required for them to experience adverse health symptoms associated with it,” he said.
“However, there are certainly community level effects with these mines,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Massive amounts of truck traffic on backcountry roads, beautiful views are destroyed, trout streams could be affected.”
O’Shaughnessy presented his research at a Pattison 2016 Mine Reserve Expansion Study Committee meeting in nearby Elkader. “With the amount of interest at that meeting, those people care not only about their health but the health of their community,” he said in his interview with IowaWatch.
But while U of I studies found little risk of silica exposure for nearby residents, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire study in the same area found significant air pollution from frac sand mining facilities. Crispin Pierce, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of nursing, found that frac sand mining facilities add significant particulate matter pollution to the air.
The dangerous particles are microscopic, measuring PM (particulate matter) 2.5 or smaller. As a reference, one strand of human hair is approximately PM 70. “These particles can penetrate through to the deepest part of the lungs and are known to cause cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and lung cancer,” Pierce said during a 2014 webinar presentation of his findings.
The U of I focused on crystalline silica, while Pierce added all microscopic dust — PM 2.5.
“We found that frac sand facilities were required to monitor,” Pierce said in an interview with IowaWatch, “but they were monitoring for a size of particulate that wasn’t as dangerous, and they weren’t monitoring for silica. We (UW-Eau Claire research team) felt that we could have some input, contribute to the conversation and do some good research to fill in the gaps.”
Pierce’s ongoing research in the Eau Claire area compared the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for air quality, called the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, to specific monitoring sites near frac sand mining facilities. One monitoring site, in New Auburn, Wisconsin, had levels that were almost twice the EPA’s allowable standard.
Pierce said the main health question is: which is closer to a known dangerous level — all microscopic dust, or just the crystalline silica mixed in that dust?
Pierce’s research suggests microscopic dust is closer to a harmful level than just the silica. His research showed that dust from the mining facilities contains anywhere from 8 to 14 percent silica particulate matter.
“If we can control PM 2.5, we can likely control the silica risk as well,” Pierce said.
Pierce continues to study with his UW-Eau Claire students the risk of harmful air pollutant exposure in frac sand mining areas. “I don’t think we have catastrophic issues to the public, but there is an elevation. That means life expectancy is a little bit shorter. The best legislative action is just to require monitoring.”
PATTISON MINE ACTION
In Iowa, the 2016 Clayton County Mine Reserve Expansion Study Committeerecommended the following restrictions to protect air quality in the community:
- Seven shafts 1,500 feet away from any adjoining property line unless the owner of the adjoining land agrees to a smaller setback distance.
- Monitor vent exhaust emission to adhere to state and national standards, although Iowa does not have specific state-mandated silica standards.
- Cover trailer traffic to avoid silica dispersion on public roads.
Jackie Lee, a marketing spokeswoman and company representative for Pattison Sand, said all of the recommendations have been implemented.
“We take the health and safety of our people and neighbors very seriously and have invested in technology and equipment to keep exposure levels well below approved levels,” Lee wrote in an email to IowaWatch.
According to the most recent data reported to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 2015, the Pattison plant emitted 14.64 tons of PM 2.5 dust. “Their emissions fall within what’s allowed on their permit,” Iowa DNR field office supervisor Joe Sanfilippo said in a phone interview with IowaWatch, “but that doesn’t account for fugitive dust.”
Fugitive dust is often lost in transport, as silica sand particles are shipped around the country. The larger particles are crushed from the pressure of the sand moving around in rail cars and trucks, exiting the transport vehicle as dust. Fugitive dust tends to visibly mound on highways, railroad tracks and other heavily traveled transportation surfaces.
Since the U.S. Department of Interior streamlined the leasing of public land for fracking in early 2018, public land available nationally for lease has nearly tripled to more than 12.8 million acres, according to analysis of Department of Interior data by the New York Times.
For Pattison Sand, demand for proppant sand used in the industry is strong. Iowa DOT’s Railroad Revolving Loan and Grant Program awarded Pattison funds to help implement a five-phase expansion, currently in phase two, that will create 3,300 feet of track and space for an additional 78 railroad cars.
MONITORING AND REPORTING
Six states have passed laws to monitor specifically for silica dust but Iowa and Wisconsin are not among them. Minnesota, which has silica sand in its southeast corner, is. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitors generally for fine dust particles in the air, including those of silica.
Popple, who produces a newsletter called Frac Sand Sentinel and is known by some who know her and her work as the “godmother of frac mining resistance in Wisconsin,” continues to call for more regulation on silica standards.
“The (Wisconsin) DNR indicates they would like people to report violations but even though violations are reported, often the personnel do not show up until weeks later,” she said. “Some companies monitor but in some cases, it may be temporary and residents can not view in real time what the results are.”
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, who inspects underground mines four times every year, penalized Pattison Sand Co. for more than 80 violations in 2018, though none were related specifically to air quality. The violations, which can be found on the Mine and Safety Health Administration webpage by using the code for Pattison, 1302297, included “training of miners assigned to a task in which they have had no previous experience; minimum courses of instruction,” resulting in a $5,242 fine, and permissible noise exposure levels, resulting in a $638 fine that was delinquent going into late March.
The Kachels still are active in resisting Pattison’s mine but the expansion is wearing on them.
“We’re here to enjoy our retirement. Of course, I want to help protect this place, but it’s taking a lot of energy,” Kathy Kachel said.
“We had the grandkids in a little pool on the back porch,” she said. “When we heard a blast go off, we had to towel them off and get them inside before the dust drifted over.”
She says decision makers who could regulate the mining industry aren’t doing enough. “We just don’t have the ear of the capital on this issue,” she said. “Unless it’s happening in their backyard, they won’t know what it’s doing to mine.”
Emily Highnam’s work on this story was supported by the University of Northern Iowa Science in the Media project and the college student IowaWatch-Science in the Media fellowship program in which it collaborates with IowaWatch. Highnam is a University of Dubuque student journalist.