Silica sand – in the air, water, lungs and frac drills


Thomas Skomski and his German shepherd Blanco explore along the sandstone bluffs of his LaSalle County property. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

Thomas and Diane Skomski moved to Wedron in rural LaSalle County in 2003 to recuperate close to nature after Thomas suffered a massive stroke. They purchased a beautiful 23-acre property bordered by Indian Creek with sheer limestone cliffs and bluffs like those at nearby Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks.

Thomas was an art professor at DePaul University but the stroke forced the couple into a new life. Two large studios were constructed on their rural Wedron property and an arduous process of therapy, exercise and work began.

But rather than healing close to nature, the couple has battled health and environmental problems they trace to Wedron Silica Fairmount mine less than a mile from their property.

The mine has doubled in size since 2003 and is now one of the busiest mine operations in the county, Thomas Skomski said, blaming that growth on increases in ambient air pollution, noise, truck traffic and water resource issues.

Fairmount Santrol owns eight mines, and the company’s annual 2016 report lists the size of the Wedron mine as 1,992 acres with 231,990 tons of proven reserves. Located along the banks of the Fox River, most of the mining is open pit using blasting, excavating and requiring millions of gallons of water to wash the sand. Thomas said blasting at the mine is routine.

Silica sand is in growing demand because it is ideal for the oil and gas hydraulic fracking boom spreading across the country. Fairmount Santrol lists 2016 revenues of $535 million with $416 million of that from sand for fracking. The Wedron mine received 32 safety citations in 2016, according to an SEC filing by the company.

Fairmount Santrol did not respond to a request for an interview. However, the U.S. EPA issued this statement in response to an inquiry about Wedron:

“EPA has investigated past complaints to determine compliance with federally-enforceable regulations and air quality standards. The year-long air monitoring study conducted with EPA oversight began in February 2015 and was completed in March 2016. The results did not show an exceedance of a health-based criteria, and there is no regulatory standard for ambient silica. The continuous monitoring also did not show an exceedance of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM10. Residents can consider contacting the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency or LaSalle County to inquire whether state or local authorities exist to address their concerns.”

Silica is especially fine sand that can permeate lungs. It is considered carcinogenic. Diane, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is also a Zen Buddhist priest, has 50 lung polyps, cancer and is on oxygen 14 hours a day.

She said, “They’ve taken some of our most valuable farmland for mining. The demand for silica for fracking won’t last 30 years, but the land will never be productive again.”

Thomas said, “So much of the gas from fracking is being shipped to Europe. We get the environmental damage and health damage, and the gas goes to Europe with a few people getting the profits.”

Even with their house sealed and closed, silica dust permeates indoor air.

“We don’t leave windows open,” Diane said, noting the silica dust is easy to notice when the vacuum cleaner bag is emptied. A fine layer of silica coats furniture.

“We’ve lost our investment and our life savings. The county has lowered the assessment of our property. We’re concerned for our health and safety,” she said.

Thomas has spoken with the Robert Kennedy Law Firm in New York about a class action lawsuit, but he was unsuccessful in mobilizing the community.

“This is a poor area and a lot of people work for the mines,” he said. “The mine bought eight houses and a church in Wedron to tear down to make the roads wider for trucks.”

Silica sand has been called the new gold. LaSalle County is pocketed with silica sand mines. One particularly controversial mine is proposed on the border of Starved Rock State Park.

Cindy Skrukrud, Ph.D. and clean water program director with Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, understands the threat these silica sand mines pose for aquifers.

“These mining operations use a lot of water, and as they continue to mine and go down to the water table, that raises concerns,” she said. “The mines are allowed to discharge certain amounts of waste water at certain volume” but she questioned how rigorously that is monitored.

The balance between agriculture, environmental tourism and mining creates added friction when mines are approved at the county or municipal level and government bodies collect fees per ton. That’s new revenue used to fill budget gaps.

“But this is an irreversible use of the land,” Skrudrud said. “It is ironic and sad that the St. Peter Sandstone that forms Starved Rock and the palisades along the Fox River is so beautiful, and it’s this rounded sandstone that is so valuable in fracking.”

St. Peter Sandstone was formed during the Paleozoic Era, 541 to 251 million years ago.

Jessica Fujan, Midwest Regional Director with Food & Water Watch, said, “We have the environmental damage and the health damage, but the oil isn’t even being used in our country.”

Each fracked drill well uses two to five million pounds of silica sand, she said. That’s the amount carried on 25 railroad cars. Both semi trucks and railroad cars of silica sand used to routinely travel through residential areas uncovered and the carcinogenic sand would blow into neighborhoods. Now trains and trucks are covered.

Crispin Pierce, associate professor at University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, has conducted research around silica sand mines and found ambient air with higher levels of silica than government readings. He believes silica dust can cause damage at low levels of exposure, but more research is needed.

Fujan agrees. She said, “Just because a handful of readings from the government come back below thresholds doesn’t mean these levels are safe.”

The New Gold” is a Swedish documentary that includes interviews with Thomas and Diane Skomski.

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