The Fracking Sandbox – Part 2

In my Saturday May 22 blog ‘THE FRACKING SANDBOX’ we looked at frac sand, from cradle to grave, so to speak.

And on that second point, I’m not even sure I pointed out how much of this sand, contaminated by hydraulic fracturing, ends up in landfills like the one in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. The same landfill that was sending leachate to a sewage treatment plant, that wasn’t equipped to properly treat it all, before it was discharged into our drinking water source, the Monongahela River.

In 2014, the Westmoreland Landfill reported accepting 1.33 million pounds of ‘Flowback Fracturing Sand,’ 82.9 million pounds of oil and gas well ‘Drill Cuttings,’ 42,561 gallons of ‘Drilling Fluid Waste,’ and 24,000 pounds of ‘General Oil and Gas Waste.’ That’s all in one year. Other Pennsylvania landfills also accept this waste. Waste which is known to contain Radium two- twenty- six, with a half life of 1,600 years! These municipal landfills weren’t designed to handle this sort of toxic waste.

While realizing the seriousness of SILICOSIS disease, we see this alarming video of frac sand dust, both surrounding and leaving this well pad, in western Pennsylvania:
Moving forward, actually backwards to Wisconsin, where so much of this sand originated due to strip mining, we learn more from this letter, which is dated the same day as ‘The Fracking Sandbox’ blog. Quoting the Frac Sand Sentinel we read this:
“Tom Lister, a retired Judge and Attorney, has written this letter to Roberta Walls, W.D.N.R. spokesperson on Reclamation rulings (especially N.R. 135) and administrative rulings which govern reclamation in counties, towns, and municipalities in the state of Wisconsin.”

May 22, 2021

Dear Ms. Walls,

      Several years ago, I met with you and raised alarms about Frac Sand companies. You told me among other things that the DNR had no authority to order endangered species studies on private property. I embarked on a three-year lobbying and litigation effort to stop the proliferation of Frac Sand mines. In the course of this work, I learned that counties were approving reclamation plans which were totally underfunded and yet backed by bonds which could be revoked upon 90 days written notice.

       I requested the DNR conduct an interim audit of the reclamation plans being approved in Jackson County, which I knew to be biased, corrupt, woefully inadequate, and procedurally illegal. Your agency, referencing an audit conducted years earlier, summarily denied my request and indicated Jackson County was doing everything right.

      Your agency fought our efforts to have a hearing on a proposed rail load-out on the bank of Halls Creek, a Class I trout stream, claiming we were a day late in filing an objection to a deadline which was not brought to public attention, while the mine was given private, preferential notice. We went to great expense and a huge commitment of time to successfully stop that project, as well as every other mine then proposed, in Jackson and Trempealeau Counties.

      We established through multiple legal actions that these mines constituted private nuisance and could be prohibited through anticipatory private nuisance actions.

       We began representing the people who were suffering from living in close proximity to these environmental abominations. Folks whose water was poisoned with arsenic and lead, whose air was filled with deadly silica PM2.5, whose lands were covered with toxic sludge from spills due to poor maintenance and construction of waste ponds were among those considered. Foundations were cracked by blasting allowing radon to seep into homes at cancer-causing levels. Windows had to be kept closed to prevent heavy dust concentrations and then covered with dark shades to keep out the ever-present light while televisions remained on at high volume all night long to provide white noise so these residents and their children could sleep. Livestock were sickened, property values plummeted, marriages and relationships were frayed, and physical and emotional health of entire families were impacted. Farming and livestock operations were also severely damaged. Sand clogged home and business water appliances and filters. Dust control measures, which are necessary to keep dangerous dust from escaping huge piles of sand, were never installed as promised or were not utilized; and when neighbors complained, your agency did nothing to effectively stop migrant dust. 

      These mines were told when DNR inspections at their facilities were scheduled. They would install new dust filters and prewash sand which was run for a second time while your personnel were present and performing testing in order to skew the results.

      Hi Crush manipulated the water usage meters on high-capacity wells supplying their treatment facilities in order to draw more water than authorized with the actual meters buried underground. When their ponds were over capacity, they surreptitiously pumped toxic effluent over a nearby hill to hide it from your inspectors.

       They failed to protect their workers from deadly silica dust; and then when they laid them off, they required them to sign releases of liability and non-disclosure agreement in order to obtain severance pay. This same facility was then given a safety commendation award!

       Ms. Walls, this is not an industry which can be governed by mere recommendations. It must be ruled by strict regulations which are, in turn, strictly enforced. The DNR has utterly, and I maintain intentionally and willfully, failed to control this industry. These companies which have irreparably scarred Wisconsin’s Driftless area, are now becoming bankrupt; they will leave the counties, which lack necessary resources to clean up their mess despite first allowing their executives to take huge bonus payments before the bankruptcy declaration. Several companies are currently under SEC investigation for such conduct.

      Your agency promised a groundwater study; and then, months and years later, said it could not be done because there was no funding. Your agency has come to rely on our Project Outreach which has placed dozens of purple air monitors around mining facilities in order to gather accurate data concerning plumes of invisible and deadly PM 2.5.

     Your plan to create suggestions for appropriate standards of reclamation are ex post facto. Your effort is far too little and far too late for the countless number of folks which have been denied the quiet and peaceful use and enjoyment of their homes and property. It seems to be merely another disingenuous effort by the DNR to placate adverse public opinion, and to dodge the outrage which will follow, as the citizens of this State come to recognize the environmental and human costs of your department’s neglect and complicity with the frac-sand-mining industry.


       Thomas E. Lister, J.D.

That’s one powerful letter!
Next, we read these excerpts from past newspaper stories…
HEADLINE: Judge allows Hi-Crush lawsuits to proceed but requires neighbors to document harms

By Chris Hubbuch – Wisconsin State Journal – December 9, 2019

Neighbors of two Hi-Crush frac sand mines can proceed with lawsuits against the company, but not before they detail specific harms suffered as a result of two mining operations in western Wisconsin. Some 40 neighbors of mines in Whitehall and Blair sued the Texas-based company in April, claiming ongoing air, water, noise and light pollution has made their water undrinkable, left them unable to open their windows and led to anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. Arguing it is a “highly-regulated business in good standing with federal and state permitting authorities.” Hi-Crush asked the court to require the plaintiffs to produce sworn affidavits from experts documenting the specific substances and doses they were exposed to as well as conclusions their illnesses were caused by the exposure. Full story

HEADLINE: Frac sand producer Hi-Crush pursuing bankruptcy amid flagging sales

By Chris Hubbuch – Wisconsin State Journal – June 27, 2020

Hi-Crush Inc. has shuttered three of its four Wisconsin sand mines amid a recession and glut of imported oil that have eroded demand for its sand, which is used in oil and gas drilling. In the quarterly report to the Securities Exchange Commission, Hi-Crush said current conditions and events “indicate that there is substantial doubt about the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern” within the next year. Hi-Crush said it has reduced its workforce by about 60% since mid-March and closed mines in Blair and Whitehall. The Hi-Crush mine in Augusta has been closed since Jan. 2019. The company says it is operating its facility in Wyeville — along with a mine in Texas — at reduced capacity. Full story

HEADLINE: Suits balloon against frac sand mining ‘running amok,’ Onalaska lawyer says

 By Mike Tighe – – December 11, 2020

Nearly a dozen western Wisconsin residents filed new lawsuits against frac sand mines in Jackson and Chippewa counties, while almost four dozen others are trying to amend four lawsuits against Hi-Crush mines in Trempealeau County. “These open-pit mines depress property values, pollute our rivers and the air, and shatter the peaceful lives and well-being of those who live nearby with blasting and round-the-clock industrial noises,” Tim Jacobson, an attorney at Fitzpatrick, Skemp & Butler in Onalaska, said. The companies also have received dozens of citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, while Wisconsin Proppants has received as many as 44 citations or orders from M.S.H.A. “Frac sand mining companies have been running amok,” Jacobson said. “These lawsuits filed by neighbors to the mines seek to impose some accountability and protect these folks from ongoing harm.”  Full story

Who knew?
Most people, even the majority of the ‘fractivists’ who have been fighting fracking on the front lines in Pennsylvania for years, had no idea of the full damage being done by the strip mining of frac sand in Wisconsin. High volume, slick water, hydraulic fracturing is such a destructive process, from start to finish, while leaving a radioactive legacy for scores of future generations.

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