Wisconsin acts as the heart of the industry, with sands mined in the state making up 75 percent of the US market. As fracking increases, frac sand mining has, too: From 2009 to 2012, the demand for frac sand tripled. Estimates of total sand mined in 2014 are expected to be 30 percent higher than 2013 totals.
Popple has become a dedicated anti-frac sand activist as she's watched her community and state transform. Six years ago, when Popple first learned about proposals to open frac sand mining facilities in Chippiwa County, there were only four sites in Wisconsin. Today, 140 have been developed, with handfuls more in the works. Wisconsin alone is expected to soon mine 50 million tons of frac sands each year, equivalent to 9,000 semi-truck loads.
These days, Popple tells Truthout, there are "piles of dust" on railroad tracks, which makes its way into local communities when trains go past. The air is thick with it in the boiling hot summers.
Popple and others are worried about the impact all that dust is having on their lives. And without strong oversight from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), they have little way of knowing. The DNR doesn't require companies to monitor levels of airborne crystalline silica dust, a byproduct of mining and a known carcinogen. Heavy exposure can scar tissue and lead to chronic pulmonary problems, heart problems, kidney disease and autoimmune disorders.
Research led by Dr. Crispin Pierce of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire shows that crystalline silica levels at the state's frac sand operations are higher than workplace standards set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Researchers from the University of Iowa are now measuring crystalline silica dust in Wisconsin communities near frac sand sites to better understand whether widespread exposure is also occurring.
Despite publicly noting the potential hazards of crystalline silica exposure, the DNR refused requests from Pierce and others that the agency categorize airborne crystaline silica as a dangerous substance that needs to be monitored.
DNR also doesn't require monitoring of something called fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 for short. That's a measurement for particles 2.5 micrometers and smaller - smaller than the width of human hair - that are common in industrial sites. PM2.5 can come from different kinds of substances - sand, carbon and diesel exhaust, you name it.
Pierce's team has been measuring PM2.5 levels at 15 Wisconsin frac sand sites over the last five years. As frac sand mining, processing and everything that comes with it, such as truck and train traffic, have increased, so too have the levels of fine particulate matter.