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Starved Rock State Park by Michelle McCray

How Frac Sand Mining is Altering an Economy Dependent on Starved Rock State Park, IL

An Ottawa, IL resident’s letter to U.S. Silica regarding how the firm’s “frac” sand mines adjacent to Starved Rock State Park will alter the local economy.

Starved Rock State Park

As is so often the case, we find that those things we have taken most for granted are usually the things we miss most when they are gone. The list of what our nation has lost to industrial and commercial concerns couldn’t possibly be compiled in a single article. The short-sighted habits of economic progress have often led to long-term loss and ecologic disaster. That is why it took a man like Abraham Lincoln, a man of long-term vision and wisdom, to sign into existence our first national park, preserving for antiquity what surely would have been lost to our American penchant for development and overuse.

With that in mind, I have always found it amazing how the gears of our own local and state governments have continually chosen the economic path of least resistance and allowed the areas surrounding Starved Rock State Park to be ravaged and destroyed for what is, ultimately, minimal gain. I am no expert but I suspect it could be argued that a full 1/3 of LaSalle County’s economic engine is funded by the simple existence of Starved Rock State Park. Beyond the 2 million plus visitors to the park each year, it cannot be forgotten that nearly every municipality in LaSalle County has directly or indirectly benefited from the countless number of businesses that prosper from the magnetism of the park’s tranquil canyons.

Photos by Michelle McCray of McCray Photography.

Preservation Not Development

As the 4-year battle with Mississippi Sand over development of the Ernat property has proved, there are many rational souls who truly acknowledge the importance of maintaining a healthy and productive park environment. With the recent sale of the Ernat property to U.S. Silica, we are again confronted with the prospect of irrational development of the eastern boundaries of Starved Rock State Park.

Given the gravity of these decisions, I would like to share a letter recently sent on behalf of many of those who have fought so hard and so long for preservation of that same eastern boundary. This letter was sent to Brian Shinn, CEO of U.S. Silica Holdings, INC. (SLCA) in Frederick, Maryland nearly a month ago, and we have yet to receive a response. In sharing this information on FracTracker’s website, I hope this letter will contribute to further discussion among our local representatives over a far more long-term vision of what LaSalle County wishes to be and what qualities, both environmental and economic, that it wishes to maintain and protect:

Letter to US Silica

Dear Mr. Shinn,

I am writing this letter on behalf of dozens of LaSalle County, Illinois residents who have, for the past several years, been intimately involved in the active pursuit of rational use and conservation of our local natural environment. As I am sure you are aware, the debate over use of the Ernat property as a functional sand mining operation has been a long and hard-fought battle. Years of litigation by the Sierra Club and other local environmental groups helped stall it’s development by Mississippi Sand, and have now led to the sale of the Ernat acreage to U.S. Silica. As irrational as the previous proposals were, the sale putting that acreage under your control has not lessened our concerns over the damaging use of that property as it relates to historic Highway 71 and the entire Starved Rock State Park area.

Obviously, sand mining operations have been a long-standing component of LaSalle County economics. Decades of mining under U.S. Silica supervision have not substantially reduced the quality of life for county residents or the natural environment as a whole. However, as can be specified by many local experts, the development and spoilage of the Ernat property will most certainly have longstanding and drastic impacts on both the ecology of Starved Rock State Park and the economic engine that it sustains. Starved Rock State Park attracts over 2 million visitors each year, with an estimated half million visitors using the Hwy. 71 entrance paralleling the Ernat farm as their main gateway into the park. The Ernat property’s river frontage has long been the tranquil eastern entry into the Illinois Canyon area, as well as an active nesting site for countless birds amidst bountiful wetlands and flat, open prairies. The Ernat property’s shared access to Horseshoe Creek has also made it essential to the entire Illinois Canyon ecosystem within the park. In short, any development of this property will most certainly have long-term negative impacts on both the economics and ecology of the Illinois River Basin.

In writing this letter, we are hoping that U.S. Silica, under your guidance, may consider the opportunity to preserve this indispensable parcel of land and examine ways in which U.S. Silica might make this land available as a gift or negotiated property to the state of Illinois. It would certainly be an important addition to the entire Starved Rock State Park area. I have included the signatures of many of our own local coalition. We hope you will consider the long-term impacts that this development would have to one of Illinois premier natural areas. Thank you.

Inspiring Action

I hope those who have signed this letter will be inspired to further action, and those who have not will reconsider their years of inaction. The natural heritage and local economies of our entire Illinois River Basin are depending on it.

Sincerely,

Paul Wheeler

Only when the last tree has died…
and the last river been poisoned…
and the last fish been caught…
will we realize we cannot eat money.

An old Cree Indian saying

Sand Mining Photos

For additional photos from Illinois, explore our online photo album.


Mr. Wheeler grew up in Oak Lawn, IL and now lives with his wife and daughter in the Ottawa, IL area and is a para-educator.

Feature image by Michelle McCray of McCray Photography.

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 2

Ludington State Park, Sargent Sand’s Mine, and US Silica and Sylvania Minerals
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

When it comes to high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), frac sand mining may be the most neglected aspect of the industry’s footprint. (HVHF demand on a per-well basis is increasing by 8% per year.)

To help fill this gap I decided to head out on the road to visit, photograph, and listen to the residents of this country’s primary frac sand communities. This multimedia perspective is part of our ongoing effort to map and quantify the effects of silica sand mining on communities, agriculture, wildlife, ecosystem services, and watersheds more broadly. Below is my follow up attempt to give The FracTracker Alliance community a sense of what residents are hearing, seeing, and saying about the silica sand mining industry writ large, through a tour of 7 sand mining communities – part 2. Read part 1.

Monroe County, MI

Monroe County, Michigan is approximately 22 miles south on I-75 from downtown Detroit with similar demographic differences to the Chicago-LaSalle County, IL comparison we made during the first part of this series. South Rockwood lies along the Northeastern edge of Monroe County and the Monroe-Wayne County border, and is consequently at the intersection of Detroit’s sprawl and rural Michigan.

Monroe County and nearly all of South Rockwood is underlain by one of the purest sandstone formations in North America. The Sylvanian Sandstone formation lies beneath 20% of Monroe County stretching from the aforementioned Wayne County border south-southwest to Lucas County, OH (Fig. 1). It is this formation that mining stalwarts such as US Silica and the appropriately named Sylvanian Minerals are mining for frac sands. Not only is the silica pure, but it is also extremely close to the surface. The region, conveniently, is situated at the crossroads of numerous rail lines capable of transporting the sand to shale plays in the east and North Dakota alike.

US Silica and Sylvanian Minerals are neighbors at the corner of Ready and Armstrong Roads in South Rockwood, with the former adjacent to I-75’s southbound lanes (Fig. 2). As of fall 2011, Sylvanian Minerals hadn’t even broken ground on its initial stab at mining frac sands. Presently the two firms have altered nearly 650 acres, or 40% of the community, with the potential to mine an additional 494 acres. These plans suggest that these two companies could collectively alter 72% of the community’s topography.

This domination of the landscape and commerce concerns many South Rockwood citizens including Sylvanian’s immediate neighbor Doug Wood, who has been the industry’s primary citizen watchdog over the last couple years (photo below).

Mr. Wood was generous enough to let us climb to the top of his barn to snap some photos of the mine. Mr. Wood witnessed the foundation of his home become compromised by the numerous blasting events down in Sylvanian’s mine, and only recently found out that the collective activity at the mines is going to force exit 26 off I-75 to be rerouted to Ready Road, converting this sleepy road into the primary entrance/exit for mine-related traffic. In addition, with the approval of Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, US Silica’s Telegraph Road Mine proposal has Mr. Wood and his neighbors worried about the safety of their families, the air pollution they inhale from the dust and potentially airborne silica, and the truck traffic related noise, which will all undoubtedly influence their health and quality of life.

The primary take-home message from this stop on my tour was that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg with respect to the potential of frac sand mining to literally and figuratively alter communities. Other affected areas such as South Rockwood could learn quite a bit from the likes of LaSalle County, IL residents Anna Mattes, Tom Skomski, and Ashley Williams.

On to the dunes of Western Michigan and Ludington State Park!

Ludington State Park and Sargent Sand’s Mine

After several days in Grand Rapids, I traveled to Ludington State Park in Michigan (see Fig 4 below), along with documentarian/drone pilot Tom Gunnels and Kent County Water Conservation’s Stephanie Mabie. Our destination was the camp of Linda and Ron Daul, the residents spearheading an effort to make Sargent Sand more accountable and transparent in its mining operations. There camp is also located within and adjacent to one of the most sensitive ecosystems in North America.

This is a documentary produced by Tom Gunnels and his Hive•Mind team that incorporated interviews and drone footage from our Ludington/Sargent Sand mine tour August, 2015.

Ms. Daul was kind enough to organize a tour of the mine, Ludington State Park, and northern hardwood forest for us, as well as journalist Aaron Selbig, who produced a piece on the tour for Interlochen Public Radio. The scenery sans the sand mining infrastructure, noise, and related truck traffic was beautiful in this little corner of Michigan roughly half way between Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

Great Lakes sand dunes

Michigan’s unique and threatened dune ecosystems – and associated Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) “plains” or “barrens” ecosystem1 – comprise of 116 square miles of coastline along Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, they are simultaneously deprived of the fire regimes they require to regenerate, and are targets for the production of frac sands with Ludington State Park being the primary example. This makes the feasibility of reclaiming original plant communities dubious at best. (There have been mixed results associated with reclamation efforts, for example, at the former Rosy Mound Standard Sand Corporation’s mine 80 miles due south in Grand Haven, see Fig. 5.)

The largest obstacle to reclamation of sand mines along Lake Michigan is the inability of practitioners to document and replicate the many “microenvironments,” which as Peterson and Dersch pointed out:

…are the small environments created by differences in temperature, moisture, and light intensity within the sand dune ecosystem. Examination of these small environments is essential to a clear understanding of the ‘whole’ ecosystem. The diversity of organisms in sand dune areas is made possible by the variety of habitats found in relatively small areas. Any alteration of the dune which homogenizes the ecosystem will allow less diversity of plants and animals.

The Great Lakes dune complex requires perennial vegetation, wind, and sand for continued formation and stabilization with a complex – and specifically adapted – mosaic of lichens, fungi, mosses, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees arranged in a complicated and multi-layered manner across much of Western Michigan’s lakeshore. As Michigan’s DNR put it:

Without sand dune plants, the integrity and preservation of a stable dune complex cannot exist.

In combination with the Michigan Supreme Court’s constant fiddling of the intent and letter of mineral extraction law, namely the “very serious consequences” clause in House Bill 4746 (2011), you have the makings of a scenario that could eliminate upwards of 16 square miles of Michigan’s critical dunes in the coming years or 9-14% of the entire complex.2

Examples of this unique situation and the threats from Sargent Sand’s expansion include this dune, which is among the largest in Ludington State Park’s 2,820 acres. The Ludington Dunes are also home to the threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri) with the LSP encompassing one of the world’s two largest populations of this species according to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. Interestingly, the US Fish & Wildlife Service does not explicitly or implicitly list sand mining as one of their reasons why the species is threatened.

In addition to Pitcher’s Thistle, systems – like those found along the western edge of Michigan – are home to more than 15 endemic, or nearly so, plant species such as:

  • Wormwood (Artemisia campestris, aka the source of Absinthe),
  • The early colonizer sea-rocket (Cakile edentula),
  • Clustered Broom-Rape (Orobanche fasciculata),
  • Harebell (Cakile edentula, at the edge of Sargent Sand’s Ludington mine), and
  • Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), and the species most responsible for dune stabilization Marram Grass (Ammophila sp.).

Additionally, these dunes are critical to the life-cycles of more than 10 different species of birds, reptiles, and herbivores including the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, Eastern Box Turtle, American Goldfinch, and everybody’s favorite, the White-Tailed Deer.

Table 1. Number of Threatened, Endangered, and Rare Plant Species within Western Michigan’s Dune Complex

Criteria # of Species within Michigan’s Dune Complex
Michigan Threatened Species List 72
Michigan Endangered Species List 7
Michigan Rare Species List 3
Extinct 4
US Endangered Species List 1
US Threatened Species List 11

Modified from State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Division, 1979.

Finally, it is of importance to mention the final stage of dune succession are the beech-maple forests, which take an estimated 1,000 years to be achieved according to Jerry Olson (1958). With that said let’s take a look at some of the pictures and testimonial I gathered during my trip to The Great Lake(s) State…

The Photos

A. Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI from Doug Wood’s barn

The Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica Mine Complex, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI. 7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months - Part 2

Location where below photos were taken, showing the Sylvanian Minerals and US Silica Mine Complex, South Rockwood, Monroe County, MI

B. Ludington State Park and Sargent Sand’s Silica Sand Mine, Ludington, Mason County, MI

Ecosystems and Native Plants of Ludington State Park, Mason County, MI (16 images, 11 species)

Sargent Sand and Ludington State Park photography Point-Of-View and Tom Gunnel's Drone Flight Path

Sargent Sand and Ludington State Park photography point-of-view and Tom Gunnel’s drone flight path

Ecosystems (8 images, 3 ecosystems within or adjacent to the mine)

C. Eastern Mine Point-Of-View

Active mine operations and reclaimed parcels (8 images)

D. Ludington State Park Point-Of-View

Overburden stockpile, haul roads, and grain separator (7 images)

E. Drone Screenshots Courtesy of documentarian Tom Gunnels at Hive•Mind

Testimonials

Doug and Dawn Wood, South Rockwood, MI

The cards are definitely stacked against you when there is a silica quarry right next door to your dream home/property. We toiled for years to green it up with trees and grass, a labor of love for our “place in the country”. I mean, what’s not to love about semi-truck traffic, air pollution, house tremors not to mention plummeting property values! Since South Rockwood village annexed the quarry in 2010, placing a quarry wall literally 300 feet from my home, we deal with noise of crushers, loaders, drilling for blasting, and blasting. All the while we are left to wonder what kind of garbage we are inhaling since there seems to be NO REGULATIONS, AIR MONITORING OR DUST CONTROL MEASURES AT ANY TIME!! And if that isn’t enough, the village wants to relocate the freeway ramps to our road for the quarry’s trucking convenience.

Al (Chip) Henning, Ludington, MI

Sargent Sand Company has owned this site since the 1920s. The Big Sable Dune Complex is roughly twice the size of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and includes the Nordhouse Federal Wilderness. If Sargent completes their mining as projected over the next 30-40 years, the Ludington Dunes (about 40% of the Complex) will be 60-70% destroyed/mined/removed, sent primarily to Pennsylvania for hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale formation. Sargent has removed 10-15% of the Ludington Dunes, to date, and faces permit renewal in January 2016. My family owns several properties which abut Ludington State Park, whose lands surround the Sargent property narrowly on three sides. Our property lies 1200 feet from the Sargent operations at closest approach; aside from the unsustainable removal of the sands, the noise from Sargent’s 24-7-365 operations is frequently intolerable.

Linda Bergles Daul, Ludington, MI

Fracking sand is mined from ancient geological sand deposits, extremely rare across the globe.   In Michigan, the Sargent Sand – Ludington (State Park) Site, on the west coastline of Lake Michigan, enjoys a controversial, grandfathered permit to mine irreplaceable sand in critical dunes for horizontal fracking application. When the Sargent Sand mine is operating, the peaceful retreat of Hamlin Lake might as well be a downtown Chicago construction site, sharing heavy truck traffic, air pollution and mine numbing noise with our Pure Michigan visitors. The beauty and majesty of Ludington State Park has enriched my life. The critical dunes are one of Michigan and LSP’s most spectacular natural features – they also are one of our most fragile! The dunes are a phenomenon unique to the State of Michigan and yet we allow permitted critical sand dune mining right next to LSP. Sargent sand expansion towards LSP resulting in the removal of 200 year-old stabilizing trees, dredging to create artificial lakes, disregard for wildlife and the critical dune ecosystem, should be addressed within LSP master plans. I would like to see a world-class, university associated educational program established at Ludington State Park, addressing dune ecosystems. The LSP master plan should deliberately study the impact of Sargent Sand Mining operation and propose a broader vision that will consolidate the park in a way that preserves its beauty for future generations. [Furthermore] The State of Michigan Sec. 35302 The legislature finds that: (a) The critical dune areas of this state are a unique, irreplaceable, economic, scientific, geological, scenic, botanical, educational, agricultural, and ecological benefits to the people of this state and to people from other states and countries who visit this resource. EXCEPT if the activity is involved in sand dune mining as defined in part 637.

Julia Chambers, President of A Few Friends for the Environment of the World (AFFEW), Ludington, MI

Sargent Sands sand mining has been viewed as mainly negative in the Ludington-Mason County community. This company was “dormant” until hydraulic fracturing became somewhat popular.   Most citizens and visitors do not like to see the dunes removed in this area so close to the Ludington State Park.   Destruction of critical dune area and possible endangered plants are the main concerns. Other impacts to this community include the immense noise created by the mining for families with homes by the mine and all the trucks going through town to the freight trains. Another issue is the wear on the roads. Also mentioned to me was the time spent waiting at the train crossings because of the sand being transported to other areas via trains. I really haven’t heard any positive comments. My guess would be that the mining creates jobs for the truckers, train workers, and of course the employees of the company. As far as in the future there are rumors that Sargent Sands will continue to mine and then make the area a destination place with condos around the lake they created. This is turn will bring more traffic to the dunes, not a sustainable idea!

Glenn Walquist, DVM, Country Veterinary Clinic, Ludington, MI

I really do “get it” in understanding that jobs are critically important for our State. Mouths are fed, bills are paid, colleges are attended. But the damage to Ludington left in Sargent Sands’ wake when it is done here someday will be permanent scars from the removal of Sand Dunes so rare and so beautiful, that I’m certain that we will all regret what we allowed to happen while on “our watch”. I believe that Ludington’s precious Sand Dunes are not really “ours”…to destroy or allow to be taken. They are timeless natural resources that we have simply been granted stewardship over by our own forefathers and mothers. Allow our children and great grandchildren the privilege of seeing and enjoying what we ourselves have been lucky enough to have seen and touched. “As a native Michigander and 13 year resident of Ludington, I can confidently tell anybody willing to listen that Sargent Sands is (at this very moment) irreversibly destroying one of Michigan’s last remaining precious and timeless natural resources. We… OWE IT to generations that follow us, the right to marvel at and enjoy what is one of this Country’s uniquely beautiful natural treasures… Ludington’s sand dunes. I ignorantly believed, at first, when Sargent Sands began mining sand again here that it would be something akin to raking one’s yard of leaves. When I had an opportunity to hike their mining operation’s perimeter, I witnessed what looks like strip-mining devastation. It’s saddens me that I was complicit (when I myself purchased some sand for my backyard from Sargent’s) but I am more frightened that our own DEQ (who should have known better) would have ever approved such disfiguring and permanent alteration to something so rarely seen in nature. I myself have marveled…at something that I believe only a few places on Earth possess…sand dunes so unique, so beautiful and so rarely seen (and…FREE to hike and to look at !) along a freshwater lake that happens to be what is increasingly being recognized as our Country’s lifeblood. In the Winter here when it snows, I often wonder how many people in other countries can even imagine what snow blowing in sand dunes looks like…the beautiful swirling mixture of sandy snow wrapping around dune grasses that stretch as far as the eyes can see –but now being trucked away. I ask our State, especially in light of Flint’s man made devastation, PLEASE do not allow this to continue when Sargent Sands’ permit expires in December of 2016. This sand mining destruction cannot be undone.

Additional Readings

Buckler, W.R., 1978. Dune Type Inventory and Barrier Dune Classification Study of Michigan’s Lake Michigan Shore, in: Resources, M.D.o.N. (Ed.). Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, MI.

Carlisle, N., 1960. Michigan’s Marching Dunes. Coronet 48, 159.

Cowles, H.C., 1899. The Ecological Relationship of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan. Botanical Gazette 27, 95-117, 167-202, 281-308, 361-391.

Cressey, G.B., 1928. The Indian sand Dunes and Shore Lines of the Lake Michigan Basin, The Geographic Society of Chicago Bulletin. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Daniel, G., 1977. Dune Country A Guide For Hikers and Naturalists. The Shallow Press Inc., Chicago, IL.

Dorr, J.A., Eschman, D.F., 1970. The Geology of Michigan. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

Kelley, R.W., 1962. Sand Dunes, A Geologic Sketch, in: Conservation, M.D.o. (Ed.). Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, MI.

Koske, R.E., Sutton, J.C., Sheppard, B.R., Ecology of Endogone in Lake Huron Sand Dunes. Canadian Journal of Botany 53, 87-93.

Odum, E.P., 1971. Fundamentals of Ecology. W.B. Sanders Company, Philadelphia, PA.

Olson, J.S., 1958. Rates of succession and soil changes on Southern Lake Michigan sand dunes. Botanical Gazette 119, 125-170.

Peterson, J.M., Dersch, E., 1981. A Guide To Sand Dune and Coastal Ecosystem Functional Relationships, in: Service, M.C.E. (Ed.). Michigan Cooperative Extension Service, Lansing, MI.

Ranwell, D.S., 1972. Ecology of Salt Marshes and Sand Dunes. Chapman and Hall, London, UK.

Reinking, R.L., Gephart, D.G., 1978. Pattern of Revegetation of a Shoreline Dune Area, Allegan County, Michigan. The Michigan Academician 11.

Thompson, P.W., 1967. Vegetation and Common Plants of Sleeping Bear. Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Footnotes for 7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 2

  1. Michigan’s DNR describes this ecosystem as having “always contained few large trees and little or no old growth. A forest where soils are dry and the vegetation sparse, it is called a barrens. A forest periodically swept by raging fires, only to spring back, fresh and revitalized. A forest which is amazingly productive and biologically diverse, providing homes for numerous plants and animals, many of them [endemic]. Today [we are]…seeking to extract its resources, enjoy its beauty, explore its secrets, and preserve its life. The jack pine forests can exist, only if we care.”
  2. As Michigan State researchers pointed out the Michigan coastal dune ecosystem exists in small fragments along the Atlantic Coastal Plain but nowhere else in the world

Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

7 Sand Mining Communities, 3 States, 5 Months – Part 1

An Exploration of Sand Mining Impacts: Lasalle County, IL by way of Chicago’s South Side
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

When it comes to high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), frac sand mining may be the most neglected aspect of the industry’s footprint. (HVHF demand on a per-well basis is increasing by 8% per year.)

To capture how this industry is changing several sand mining communities, I recently took a road trip to visit, photograph, and listen to the residents of this country’s primary frac sand areas. In total, I visited 7 sand mining communities in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

This multimedia perspective is part of our ongoing effort to map and quantify the effects of silica sand mining on people, agriculture, wildlife, ecosystem services, and watersheds more broadly. Below is my attempt to give the FracTracker community a sense of what residents are hearing, seeing, and saying about the silica sand mining industry writ large.

Chicago’s South Side

Before heading to Illinois’ frac sand epicenter of Lasalle County, I couldn’t help but catch the South Shore Line out of Millennium Station. This station can be seen as you head south to the Hegewisch neighborhood on Chicago’s impoverished South Side, an area of greater Chicago-Gary, Indiana that has largely been forgotten by politicians in both states. Chicago_KCBX_BP

ChicagoLand_Income_Hardship

Figure 1. Average income per capita and Hardship Index (0-100 with 100 being the worst) for Chicago’s neighborhoods with Hegewisch highlighted in the city’s southeast corner.

This situation is a shame because collectively Hegewisch and the city of Whiting, IN are home to one of the largest – and getting larger – collections of oil refineries and oil sands infrastructure in the United States.

For an estimation of how difficult it is to live in various Chicago neighborhoods, see Figure 1, left.

This proliferation has not been without its dangers, including a compressor station explosion at BP PLC’s massive1 Whiting Refinery in August 2014. Unfortunately, that incident was just the latest in a long line of mishaps at this facility. The “operational incident,” as BP called it, rocked already stressed neighborhoods like MarkTown, IN – the aborted company town planned for steel maker Clayton Mark. MarkTown is on the National Register of Historic Places and is an example of a community that is being erased from the face of the earth in the name of Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex expansion. For those interested in architecture preservation, MarkTown’s rapid erasure is being conducted by BP itself and in the process we are losing an example of Conservatively Radical architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s distinct English-style Tudor homes and urban planning. Residents speculate BP “may be buying up the properties because of concerns about liability.” The company counters they are just trying to create additional green space for residents.

KCBX_BP_POV

NAmerican_Ports_Refineries

Figure 2. Average daily oil refinery production per day across North America’s 152 Oil Refineries along with North American ports.

Luckily for everyone, operations following the aforementioned recent explosion were only “minimally impacted as a result of the incident and the refinery continue[d] to produce products for customers.” However, the more chronic concern is the tight supply-demand relationship between BP’s refinery and their Koch KCBX neighbor. Koch has made repeated headlines – and many neighbors turned enemies including the Southeast Environmental Task Force and its fearless leader Peggy Salazar – with its handling of the refinery’s annual production of 600,000 tons of petcoke a development Chicago Magazine called Mountains of Trouble. Petcoke is a byproduct of the refinery’s increased acceptance and processing of tar sands from Alberta Canada. Levels of production are likely to increase given BP’s completion in November 2014 of a “$4-billion revamp…to boost its intake of Canadian crude oil from 85,000 bpd to 350,000 bpd.”

Given how interconnected the hydrocarbon industry is, I thought it would be worth collecting some photos of the aforementioned infrastructure. When I saw that Koch KCBX’s terminal was also storing large amounts of silica sand, however, the connection between my next target(s) in LaSalle County was made even more obvious.

LaSalle vs. Chicagoland: A Tale of Two Worlds

Lasalle County, Illinois is situated approximately 50-60 miles south-southwest of Chicago. When you try to compare demographics and commerce, however, it is worlds away.

Chicagoland encompasses nearly 10,900 square miles – 9.5 times the area of Lasalle County. While Chicago’s population is expanding by 95,681 people per year, LaSalle’s is shrinking by 2,734 per year (Table 1). Chicagoans, though not South Siders, are making more than two times that of LaSalle County residents (with the latter actually falling nearly $4,700 below the state average). Predictably the demographics of Chicago reflect more and more those of the US, while LaSalle is typical of rural America with a population that is 93% white and only 3.3% foreign born. Thirty-five percent of Chicagoans are likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree, while only 16% of LaSalle County residents are likely to do so. Rates of poverty and more specifically child poverty, on the other hand, are significantly higher in Chicago. Finally, LaSalle is one of the country’s preeminent farming counties; it ranks #4 in the state and #126 nationally thanks to the value of agricultural commodities produced amounting to $448.5 million net of farm subsidies. See Table 1.

La Salle County, IL Silica Sand Mines & St. Peter Sandstone Geology

Figure 3. La Salle County, IL Silica Sand Mines & St. Peter Sandstone Geology

Chicago_Vs_LaSalleCounty_Comparison

Table 1. Chicagoland and LaSalle County, Illinois summary demographics, economic prosperity, and agricultural productivity.

Photos from the Tour

The above contrast was made crystal clear as I traveled down Interstate 80 westbound towards exit 90 and LaSalle’s County seat Ottawa (pop. 18,562). Upon arriving in Ottawa I drove west on Madison Street to the first target of our expedition: U.S. Silica Company’s mine and processing facility at the corner of Madison Boyce Memorial Drive. Upon arriving, however, it became clear that I would not find a suitable location to photograph the company’s mine; the perimeter had been fenced off and mounded up to the tune of 10-15 feet. So I got back in our rental car and drove to the mine’s southern perimeter adjacent to the Bear Den Bar and Grill and the Vine St.-Fern St.-15th Ave. neighborhood where there was clear line of site. It was here that I got some of the best photos of the mine’s scale and scope with respect to land-use, reclamation, and hydrology.

US_Silica_OttawaCo

Below is a sample of some of those images as well as several I took further down Route 34 between U.S. Silica’s active mine and a “reclaimed” Ottawa Silica Co. mine on the banks of the Illinois River.

After snapping several hundred shots of these two mines I headed to the I & M Canal State Trail between Utica and Ottawa emanating out of Buffalo Rock State Park and hiked east towards the Northern edge of U.S. Silica’s mine alongside a CSX railroad and recently constructed spur feeding into the mine’s loading terminal. The hope was that I would get a closer look at the mine but it turned out the angle was different but not better.

From the back of U.S. Silica’s Ottawa mine I traveled approximately 7 miles west to Unimin’s North Utica mine and a short dirt road off of 2803rd Road on the northern edge of the mine.

Unimin_NorthUtica

It was here that I photographed the mine’s reclamation plots, active mine pits, and developing water transport mechanisms. However, more importantly it was from here that I noticed off in the distance a bright red silica sand grain-size separator.

Curiously I did not – but do now – have this nascent and relatively small mine posted on our Frac Sands Mines and Related Facilities map at the time. Upon arriving at this site I found that the mine was owned and operated by a company called Northern White Sand a small mom & pop operation out of Utica, IL.

Unimin_NorthUtica_NorthernWhiteSand

The photos I took of this mine were primarily from atop a vegetated berm to the southwest of the mine’s primary footprint. This vantage point allowed us to get some great shots of the types of infrastructure/equipment typical of this sized mine including the aforementioned modular grain-size separator, conveyor belts, retention ponds, and the pyramid-like piles of powdery white silica sand so desired by the HVHF industry.

Our final stop on the LaSalle County silica sand mine tour landed us in Troy Grove 13 miles north of North Utica by way of Interstate 39. It was here that I visited several vantage points around Technisand’s MBI Manley Bros. silica mine. The expanse included the site’s mixture of old and new processing infrastructure, what appeared to be an alluvial fan derived from sand waste and associated wetland, and the mine’s far reaches alongside a Chicago and North Western Transportation Company (CNW) railroad.

Resident Testimonials

So now that I have outlined my tour of La Salle County I thought it would be helpful to share some of the stories residents told me during my travels and later by way of email.

Anna Mattes – La Salle County, IL

I live in LaSalle County, Illinois where I have prime farmland and Starved Rock State Park… the crown jewel of Illinois. I already have a fine farming industry and plenty of tourism as Starved Rock is visited by two million people annually. LaSalle County already has forty two quarries, gravel pits and sand mines. If I allow anymore the county will look as though it has been bombed. Empty sand pits will never produce food ever again. No amount of reclamation will restore this land to be productive…Each mine uses one million gallons of water daily. The LaSalle County Board has enlisted the USGS to do a hydrology study to determine how much water I have in our aquifer for municipalities and farming. Presently I have a moratorium in place on sand mines thru July 2016 and I hope forever. As a woman, wife and mother I am charged with the continuity of life. It is my job, profession, to raise healthy children, make a healthy breakfast and pack a nutritious lunch for my husband so he can do his job, and it generally falls to women to care for the elderly in families. With out clean air, pure water, healthy food what is the quality of life? Fracking is a dangerous business and I need to take better care of Planet Earth. Please do your part, I’m a Master Gardener and I’m doing my part.

Thomas Skomski – Wedron, IL

I am a resident of Wedron who has been severely impacted by Wedron Silica; and I want to report that there are many more problems associated with the influx of sand mines in LaSalle Co. than named in your recent article. In order to be fair to other residents who will be negatively affected by proximity to any sand mine I believe it is important to inform them and all concerned on the unmentioned problems associated with living near a sand mine. For example: the mountains of sand that are produced migrate everywhere the wind takes the particles. As I all know the winds are frequently fierce in this part of the country. One neighbor describes how in the morning when he sets his coffee cup down on his front porch and goes into his house to get the newspaper that he returns to find a layer of white sand covering his coffee. Another neighbor vacuums the sand off her living room rugs weekly while her husband regularly has to clean out sand-filled gutters. I do know that enabling pollutants on private property is technically criminal trespass. At the last EPA hearing in Wedron a retired mine employee admitted that Wedron Silica uses 100 million gallons of water per hour in sand processing. Some of this water is recycled. Since I have not confirmed those statistics, I prefer sticking to the fact that the mine has reversed the flow of the ground water. Who knows what the unseen consequences of that reversal might be? The toxic plume that Wedron Silica is in part responsible for creating migrates wherever the ground water moves. As a result of the threat of my well being poisoned my land, 23 acres has been devalued by the county to $1.00. All my five buildings are worth 40% of what they were before nine wells were poisoned in Wedron. Those wells were so toxic with benzene that water came out of the faucet orange and you could not breath it let alone use it to wash anything. Wedron Silica has begun buying homes in Wedron which will allow them to pursue their wealth with no concerns- BUT what about the water which I all know is in limited supply and susceptible to being polluted? So in summary, please include the human costs involved in a mine opening near you. My wife and I moved to the country to enjoy the solitude and quiet of living on a farm in our retirement years. The quality of our lives has been diminished, in addition the noise is disturbing; trains come in at all hours incessantly blowing their horns and the semi traffic is constant. Finally, I have heard a lot of what I consider negative criticism about the EPA. Having experienced this monumental problem directly it is perfectly clear to me that without the resources of a pro-environment organization I would be hard pressed to stand up to a corporation with multi billions in assets.

Ashley Williams – LaSalle County, IL

The nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has quickly transformed into a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, IL. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate, endangering the health and safety of the people and local environment. Our precious life vessels: our air, water, and soil are under siege by a nexus of power that seeks to intimidate us into quiet submission, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit by and let that happen.

Footnote

  1. This facility alone processes nearly 2% of all oil in North America on a daily basis. This facility is the seventh-largest refinery in the United States and the largest outside of the Gulf Coast.

Well Worker Safety and Statistics

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Manager of Science and Communications, FracTracker Alliance

The population most at risk from accidents and incidents near unconventional drilling operations are the drillers and contractors within the industry. While that statement may seem quite obvious, let’s explore some of the numbers behind how often these workers are in harm’s way and why.

O&G Risks

Oil and Gas Worker Fatalities over Time

Fig. 1. Number of oil and gas worker fatalities over time
Data Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014

Drilling operations, whether conventional or unconventional (aka fracking), run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Workers may be on site for several hours or even days at a time. Simply the amount of time spent on the job inherently increases one’s chances of health and safety concerns. Working in the extraction field is traditionally risky business. In 2012, mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction jobs experienced an overall 15.9 deaths for every 100,000 workers, the second highest rate among American businesses. (Only Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting jobs had a higher rate.)

According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the oil and gas industry employed 188,003 workers in 2012 in the U.S., a jump from 120,328 in 2003. Preliminary data indicate that the upward employment trend continued in 2013. However, between 2003 and 2012, a total of 1,077 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on the job (Fig. 1).

Causes of Injuries and Fatalities in Oil and Gas Field

Reasons for O&G Fatalities 2003-12. Aggregated from Table 1.

Fig. 2. Reasons for O&G Fatalities 2003-12. Aggregated from Table 1.

Like many industrial operations, here are some of the reasons why oil and gas workers may be hurt or killed according to OSHA:

  • Vehicle Accidents
  • Struck-By/ Caught-In/ Caught-Between Equipment
  • Explosions and Fires
  • Falls
  • Confined Spaces
  • Chemical Exposures

If you drill down to the raw fatality-cause numbers, you can see that the fatal worksite hazards vary over time and job type1 (Table 1, bottom). Supporting jobs to the O&G sector are at higher risk of fatal injuries than those within the O&G extraction job category2. The chart to the right shows aggregate data for years 2003-12. Records indicate that the primary risk of death originated from transportation incidents, followed by situations where someone came into contact with physical equipment (Fig. 2).

Silica Research

Silica-Exposed Workers

Fig. 3. Number of total silica-exposed workers and those exposed above PEL – compared across industries
Source: OSHA Directorate of Standards and Guidance

A recent NIOSH study by Esswein et al. regarding workplace safety for oil and gas workers was that the methods being employed to protect workers against respirable crystalline silica3 were not adequate. This form of silica can be found in the sand used for hydraulic fracturing operations and presents health concerns such as silicosis if inhaled over time. According to Esswein’s research, workers were being exposed to levels above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of ~0.1 mg/m3 for pure quartz silica because of insufficient respirator use and inadequate technology controls on site. It is unclear at this time how far the dust may migrate from the well pad or sand mining site, a concern for nearby residents of the sand mines, distribution methods, and well pads. (Check out our photos of a recent frac sand mine tour.) The oil and gas industry is not the only employer that must protect people from this airborne workplace hazard. Several other classes of jobs result in exposure to silica dust above the PEL (Fig. 3).

References and Additional Resources

1. What do the job categories in the table below mean?

For the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is important for jobs to be classified into groups to allow for better reporting/tracking. The jobs and associated numbers are assigned according to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).

(NAICS 21111) Oil and Gas Extraction comprises establishments primarily engaged in operating and/or developing oil and gas field properties and establishments primarily engaged in recovering liquid hydrocarbons from oil and gas field gases. Such activities may include exploration for crude petroleum and natural gas; drilling, completing, and equipping wells; operation of separators, emulsion breakers, desilting equipment, and field gathering lines for crude petroleum and natural gas; and all other activities in the preparation of oil and gas up to the point of shipment from the producing property. This industry includes the production of crude petroleum, the mining and extraction of oil from oil shale and oil sands, the production of natural gas, sulfur recovery from natural gas, and the recovery of hydrocarbon liquids from oil and gas field gases. Establishments in this industry operate oil and gas wells on their own account or for others on a contract or fee basis. Learn more

(NAICS 213111) Drilling Oil and Gas Wells comprises establishments primarily engaged in drilling oil and gas wells for others on a contract or fee basis. This industry includes contractors that specialize in spudding in, drilling in, redrilling, and directional drilling. Learn more

(NAICS 213112) Support Activities for Oil and Gas Operations comprises establishments primarily engaged in performing support activities on a contract or fee basis for oil and gas operations (except site preparation and related construction activities). Services included are exploration (except geophysical surveying and mapping); excavating slush pits and cellars, well surveying; running, cutting, and pulling casings, tubes, and rods; cementing wells, shooting wells; perforating well casings; acidizing and chemically treating wells; and cleaning out, bailing, and swabbing wells. Learn more

2. Fifteen percent of all fatal work injuries in 2012 involved contractors. Source

3. What is respirable crystalline silica?

Respirable crystalline silica – very small particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand you might encounter on beaches and playgrounds – is created during work operations involving stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, mortar, and industrial sand. Exposures to respirable crystalline silica can occur when cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing these materials. These exposures are common in brick, concrete, and pottery manufacturing operations, as well as during operations using industrial sand products, such as in foundries, sand blasting, and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations in the oil and gas industry.

4. OSHA Fact Sheet: OSHA’s Proposed Crystalline Silica Rule: General Industry and Maritime. Learn more

Employee health and safety are protected under the following OSHA regulations. These standards require employers to make sure that the workplace is in due order:

Table 1. 2003-2012 U.S. fatalities in oil & gas industries by year, job category, & event/exposure
Year Oil and Gas (O&G) Industriesa Total Fatal Injuries (number)b Event or Exposurec
Violence / injuries by persons / animalsd Transportatione Fires & Explosions Falls, Slips, Trips Exposure to Harmful Substances or Environments Contact w/Objects & Equipment
2012
O&G Extraction 26 0 8 6 5 3 4
Drilling O&G Wells 39 0 10 6 8 3 10
Support Activities 77 0 46 11 5 3 10
Yearly Totals 142 0 64 23 18 9 24
2011
O&G Extraction 13 0 7 0 0 0 3
Drilling O&G Wells 41 0 15 5 4 5 12
Support Activities 58 3 29 7 4 4 11
Yearly Totals 112 3 51 12 8 9 26
2010
O&G Extraction 12 0 5 3 0 3 0
Drilling O&G Wells 47 0 8 14 7 6 12
Support Activities 48 3 28 8 0 0 8
Yearly Totals 107 3 41 25 7 9 20
2009
O&G Extraction 12 0 6 0 0 0 3
Drilling O&G Wells 29 0 9 0 0 4 13
Support Activities 27 0 12 5 0 4 5
Yearly Totals 68 0 27 5 0 8 21
2008
O&G Extraction 21 0 7 4 0 0 5
Drilling O&G Wells 30 0 6 3 4 4 13
Support Activities 69 0 36 11 4 6 12
Yearly Totals 120 0 49 18 8 10 30
2007
O&G Extraction 15 0 5 0 0 0 5
Drilling O&G Wells 42 0 12 0 4 8 16
Support Activities 65 0 33 6 0 5 19
Yearly Totals 122 0 50 6 4 13 40
2006
O&G Extraction 22 0 6 7 0 3 4
Drilling O&G Wells 36 0 11 0 5 4 14
Support Activities 67 0 2 12 0 5 21
Yearly Totals 125 0 19 19 5 12 39
2005
O&G Extraction 17 0 4 5 0 0 4
Drilling O&G Wells 34 0 9 0 7 4 10
Support Activities 47 0 21 5 0 5 13
Yearly Totals 98 0 34 10 7 9 27
2004
O&G Extraction 29 0 17 0 0 0 8
Drilling O&G Wells 30 0 6 0 6 3 11
Support Activities 39 0 22 5 0 0 10
Yearly Totals 98 0 45 5 6 3 29
2003
O&G Extraction 17 0 9 4 0 0 3
Drilling O&G Wells 26 0 5 5 0 0 13
Support Activities 42 0 17 10 0 3 10
Yearly Totals 85 0 31 19 0 3 26
2003-12 TOTAL FATALITIES 1077 6 411 142 63 85 282
a Oil and gas extraction industries include oil and gas extraction (NAICS 21111), drilling oil and gas wells (NAICS 213111), and support activities for oil and gas operations (NAICS 213112).
b Data in event or exposure categories do not always add up to total fatalities due to data gaps.
c Based on the BLS Occupational Injury and Illness Classification System (OIICS) 2.01 implemented for 2011 data forward
d Includes violence by persons, self-inflicted injury, and attacks by animals
e Includes highway, non-highway, air, water, rail fatal occupational injuries, and fatal occupational injuries resulting from being struck by a vehicle.