Sandstorm of Business: Citizen Concerns - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Sandstorm of Business: Citizen Concerns

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Western Wisconsin (WQOW) - There's a demonstration, a petition and a passionate group committed to a cause.  We're not describing the recall effort right now, rather a grassroots effort designed to get you interested in the frac sand debate.

"I know more than I really want to know," says Dr. Peter Holm, an ophthalmologist in Chippewa Falls. He has researched the health risks of being exposed to crystalline silica. Sand mining is a source of crystalline silica, which can cause silicosis, a lung disease. 

"Silicosis is the end point of breathing this stuff. Silicosis has no cure. The thing we're concerned about are the people who are the most vulnerable and that's why all 67 physicians became involved and signed this petition to the DNR," said Holm.

Dr. Holm is referring to a petition signed by local physicians and health care providers that called for the state to list crystalline silica as a hazardous air pollutant, establish emission standards and require monitoring.

"If you get enough silica dust in your lungs, you will get silicosis and die," said Mike Michaud, a concerned citizen from the Maiden Rock area who's also been at the forefront of the grassroots effort.

A government study of work-related lung disease shows there were 75 deaths from silicosis in Wisconsin over a 10-year period (1996-2005). But again, that was from workplace exposure. 

"The issue is well recognized in the mining industry, the mine employees are monitored, but the mines seem to totally ignore the surrounding communities' exposure to their operations," said Michaud.

The size of the particles is a big concern. A human hair is about seven times as thick as the particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs and cause the most significant health problems. The smaller the grain size, the greater the concern. 

Mel Erickson, the director of Eau Claire County Planning & Development, says they're concerned most about the reject piles that have a higher concentration of smaller grain sizes. Those piles are what's left after the sand has been separated.

A recent DNR study determined that crystalline forms of silica meet the definition of a known carcinogen, a hazardous air pollutant. But two weeks ago, the DNR said it believes the regulations on the books right now are adequate to protect public health. However, with the size of new sand mines popping up in western Wisconsin, many feel the old regulations don't go far enough.

What's in the air isn't the only issue:

"They're pulling over one million gallons of water a day to wash their sand," said Peter Deneen, from Maiden Rock.

"That's roughly the same amount of water as a city of 20,000 people," said Michaud.

They're talking about the mine run by Fairmount Minerals in Maiden Rock, a small village set along the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin. 

"One might think, 'Well, all they're doing is taking this stuff out of the hill, cleaning it, etc.  That's not true.  They add flocculent chemicals that aid in the coagulation and settling of the particles that are not silica, so those flocculent chemicals end up in the settling ponds and also end up being leeched into the groundwater," said Michaud.

Michaud says he believes the flocculents used have compounds that have been determined to be cancerous in another state.  "Where are they concentrated?  Are they in the fish?  We're right here next to Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River.  How much of the groundwater makes it way into Lake Pepin, we don't know," said Michaud.

There are also concerns about truck traffic, noise, impact on property values --- and then there's this:  "Property owners may be, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, that they're getting for this type of material," said Erickson.

That is a common issue that has come up as WQOW News 18 has researched frac sand. Some landowners are profiting while many others, who would like to, are not. That has created a division, just as one has been created between those who support the industry for creating jobs and those who oppose it for the aforementioned concerns spelled out in this story. 

Add it all up and it has led to this: "We're a very polarized town. It's very uncomfortable seeing neighbors pitted against neighbors over this and that has made living in this lovely little town not so lovely," said Linda Harding of Maiden Rock.

So with a laundry list of concerns, it's now up to the industry, and those who regulate it or represent it in some fashion, to state their case. 

"I think what the companies are objecting to are the scare tactics that are being used or the fear that's being put upon people by saying, 'Oh, your well is going to be poisoned, you won't be able to breathe.' The science just doesn't support that," said Brian Nodolf, a local attorney who represents energy companies and landowners.

That will be the focus of Wednesday's story in our series:  The response to citizen concerns.

If you have questions about frac sand, let us know.  We're answering some of those on Daybreak throughout the week.

***NOTE:  WQOW News 18's frac sand stories can be found under Featured Reports on the homepage.***

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