Sand County, the Sequel

May 15th, 2012

Bringing the phrase “world of wounds” to new depths

by Sandra Steingraber
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion magazine


ALDO LEOPOLD was a righteous man—in a midwestern sort of way. When it came to nature, he disapproved of “tinkerings,” as when domestic species are substituted for wild ones, and he advised against “readjustments” of the land’s circulatory system. In fact, he insisted calmly, the land should be appraised not as a commodity but as a living community that commands our respect because it is the source of both human culture and human freedom.

To narrate the message, the father of wildlife conservation took us to his own beloved plot of land on an abandoned farm in Sand County. Which, as all good students of Leopold know, is really Sauk County, but his larger literary and geological point was that west-central Wisconsin is essentially a sandbox, and that when you clear the forest and try to plow in the usual extractive way, ruination and defeat are the likely results.

Cease being intimidated by the argument that right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits.

Well, sensible Aldo, I was with you for years. Unintimidated. Right up until I interacted with the interactive map (source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) captioned “Counties With Frack Sand Mines And/Or Processing Facilities” that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provided as a sidebar to the story “Fracking Expanding: Mining for Sand Used in Oil and Gas Exploration is Booming in Western Wisconsin, and the DNR Has No Plans for New Regulations.”

Basically, Sand County is being loaded into rail cars and hauled away, metric ton by metric ton. Bluffs, hills, coulees. They’re all going.

Every day, at least one full train of mined sand leaves Wisconsin for gas fields in Pennsylvania or oil fields in North Dakota. The number of operating sand mines in the state has doubled over the past five months. Each one is five hundred to one thousand acres in size, which is ten to twenty times larger than the average gravel pit. “It’s huge,” says a mineral commodity specialist quoted in the Associated Press. “I’ve never seen anything like it, the growth. It makes my head spin.”

So, there you have it. Even the commodities guy—the commodities guy, Aldo—is intimidated.

Meanwhile, Sand County streams are filling with silt, rural roads are filling with 24/7 truck traffic, and rural air is filling with the noise of loading rail cars and crystalline silica.

Crystalline silica causes cancer. More specifically, crystalline silica dust is listed by both the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Toxicology Program as a known human lung carcinogen. Unlike tobacco smoke, silica dust does not provoke tumors via genetic mutations. Instead, its method of injury is to trigger inflammation and suppress immune functioning. It also causes silicosis, a disabling and sometimes fatal condition in which fibrous nodules fill the spongy pulmonary chambers, prompting infections and heart failure. For both reasons, crystalline silica is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. There are legal limits to how much silica dust a person operating a sandblaster can inhale.

Before midwestern sand counties were turned inside out—and towering, windblown dunes of powdery silica began appearing within view of people’s kitchen windows—the general public was not thought to suffer appreciable exposures. There are thus no standards for us. No research program has ever addressed the possible impact of silica dust on, say, pregnancy outcome or the lung development of children. Lack of study on public health effects means that the occupational carcinogen crystalline silica is not regulated as a hazardous air pollutant. At least not in Wisconsin and not at this writing.

A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC was published in 1949. In the same year, an oil-field service company called Halliburton fracked its first commercial well and so ushered in a new method for extracting oil and gas by using pressure, water, chemicals, and sand to blow up shale. The function of the sand is to hold the stone doors ajar so that the hydrocarbons can flow out and up.

But the shale boom didn’t really take off until 2005, the year that fracking received exemptions from most major federal environmental regulations (the now-famous “Halliburton loophole”). By 2008, Wisconsin sand had become a highly prized quarry. The Samson of silica, its grains were the ideal size, shape, and strength for propping open cracks a mile or more below the earth’s surface. And that’s how the nation’s Devonian bedrock became the new destination spot for Sand County. That’s how Aldo Leopold’s farm in central Wisconsin could end up fracking Rachel Carson’s childhood home on the Marcellus shale of western Pennsylvania.

In 2009, the last year for which data are available, 6.5 million tons of U.S. sand were mined, washed, processed, loaded onto trucks and trains, carried to wellheads, and shot into the center of the earth. Six and a half million tons is the approximate weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza. According to commodities analysts, that figure probably doubled in 2010 and likely doubled again last year.

THE OLD WOMAN PROFILED in a recent news story about Wisconsin’s sand rush is moving away. She admitted to the reporter that she had sold her land to the mining company. Her husband has Alzheimer’s and needs help. She lives north of your farm, Aldo.

IF A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC is about the loving restoration of logged hills and depleted farm fields, Sand County, the Sequel is about turning those hills and fields into open pit mines. It’s about the exhuming of Wisconsin’s sandstone foundation—put in place by the last glacier—and its reburial into fossilized seabeds one or two time zones away. Except that, once wedged into the cracks of shattered shale, the processed and pulverized sand is not really laid to rest. Generations from now, long after the fracked wells are exhausted of oil and gas, the zombie sand will go on, eternally holding open geological passageways. The question remains: what manner of subterranean stuff—methane, benzene, toluene, radon—will thereby find escape routes?

I, too, grew up in sand county—on the east bluff of the Illinois River, which flows through the riverbed of the ancient Mississippi. Just below the streets, fields, rail yards, and playgrounds of my hometown are the original dunes that lined its preglacial shores. As the girl whose name was Sandy, I was pleased to know they were down there. In Sunday school, I imagined talking to Jesus about that parable of the foolish builder whose house was constructed on sand. C’mon.

Last January, my hometown newspaper brought word that the LaSalle County board has approved strip mining for frack sand along the boundary of Starved Rock State Park, which is a marvel of sandstone outcroppings and gorges. The county board was swayed by the promise of thirty-nine jobs, which start at eighteen dollars an hour. So, absent further intervention, the beloved landscape of my childhood may be carted off and shoved into the fractured landscape of my children’s childhood.

We now live atop the Marcellus shale, surrounded by land leased for gas extraction.

By any measure, the gas and oil industry is the wealthiest, most powerful industry in the world. Maximizing profits is what they do. I am intimidated, Aldo. But I am not resigned. And there is a difference.