New study examines quality of air at mining sites

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New study examines quality of air at mining sites

Premiere Date: 
January 31, 2013

Crispin Pierce shares the results from his new study on air quality at mining locations.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Another growing business in Wisconsin is sand mining. An environmental public health professor at UW-Eau Claire has just released results of tests he and his team conducted on the air quality around selected frac sand mines in the state. Frac sand mining has exploded in Wisconsin in recent years due to the oil and natural gas boom in North Dakota that uses the sand in its drilling process. But some, like Professor Crispin Pierce, wonder if the silica dust coming off the sand represents a health risk for people living near the mines. Pierce and his team visited six frac sand mines and took some 60 air samples. He joins us now from Eau Claire and, Professor, thanks very much for doing so.

Crispin Pierce:

You're welcome. It's good to be here.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, overall what did your results show?

Crispin Pierce:

Well, we were taking these samples as, I like to call, snapshots to get the bigger picture. Our concern is that long-term exposure to the small particulates as well as silica is known to cause adverse health effects like cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Our aim is to add to the slowly-growing body of knowledge on the concentration of these particulates around sand mines, transport facilities and sand processing activities in Wisconsin.

Frederica Freyberg:

And so what did the results of your air monitoring tests show?

Crispin Pierce:

We found a couple of, I think, important discoveries. One is that, as we looked at one particular sand processing facility in Chippewa Falls, we saw an increase over time. We sampled during construction and then to full operation. We saw an increase in the levels of the small or the fine particulates over time. In addition, we found that compared to the DNR measurements, our levels are significantly higher. Now, the DNR is measuring the regional small particulates. We're actually going to the different sand facility sites. SO we’re comparing the levels that the DNR has compared to our levels. We're seeing an increase in the reported concentrations of particulates at these facilities.

Frederica Freyberg:

Notwithstanding these results, is it premature do you think, to suggest a health risk?

Crispin Pierce:

I think we have a lot of good data in the public health literature to suggest that these very small particles, as well as silica, cause adverse health effects, cardiovascular disease, bronchitis, lung cancer. Crystalline silica is one of the most important components we're concerned about. We know from decades of history that these kinds of exposures in the workplace do cause these diseases. So we have good evidence that these kinds of exposures are responsible for widespread mortality and morbidity in our population. So indeed there is evidence based in the literature. What we're trying to do is contribute to finding out what the risks would be around sand processing facilities and sand mines. So there is cause for concern.

Frederica Freyberg:

It does sound scary, particularly if you are a person who lived or worked near those facilities. But the state DNR says that state air permits already in force protect human health, and additionally that state rules governing sand dust ensure that these dangerous particulates, they say, don't become airborne. So how responsive are they to your research?

Crispin Pierce:

Well, I have some concerns about the DNR's approach to this. And we've been working with the DNR, I share my data with the DNR, to get their feedback.  Because they have experts that are helpful in understanding what we are contributing to the discussion. Some of my concerns about the DNR’s approach, in these permits, they don't consider any fugitive dust sources. That would be the large sand piles or truck traffic through the area, or anytime sand is moved on a conveyer belt . Those are not included when the DNR takes a look at the issues and makes some predictions about concentration in the area. The other issue I have with the DNR is they're not doing monitoring. They are not requiring industry to monitor, and their conclusion as a result of that, is that we don't have an issue because we don't have data suggesting there is a concern. So I believe it is the role of public institutions like myself and my students to go out and contribute to the data that we do have available to try to fill in this picture of the degree of health risk if somebody lives or works near a sand facility.

Frederica Freyberg:

We know that you shared your results with the DNR, and we therefore asked the DNR for a response to your research and they told us this. They said , “While the data from studies like Professor Pierce's are of interest, the conclusions drawn are uncertain and of limited value due to the very limited sample sizes and the fact that they employ non-federally-approved sampling methodologies.” It sounds to me from that like the regulators are throwing a little cold water on your work. What's your response to that?

Crispin Pierce:

I think the points they raise are valid, that we are taking, as I call, snapshots. What we really want is a long movie, a long-term sampling evaluation of what's in the air, what people are breathing. Because that's how we understand the health risk, in kind of a long-term average. That notwithstanding, our 60 samples do provide a snapshot and some trends that of concern. A I’ve said, through construction, through full operation of the Chippewa Falls Plant, we see an increase in concentrations, and our measurements are higher than the DNR's, albeit in little snapshots. Part of the other difficulty I have with the DNR statement is they are not doing themselves-- they don't see that monitoring is a priority near sand plants. They are not asking industry to do this. So we have just a very slow accumulation of important evidence. So with a little more effort from DNR, if they were to require sand companies to do monitoring of the pm 2.5, the smaller, fine particles, we'd have much more information on which to go.

Frederica Freyberg:

Where does your research go from here?  

Crispin Pierce:

We're going to continue to monitor. We found that issues like wind speed and precipitation and degree of plant activity make a difference in the concentration of the particles around these sand plants. So we will continue, bi-weekly at this point. Students are doing much of this work, so we’ll be working on Spring Break, and we’re working all throughout the summer to continue to monitor, share our data with industry, with local citizens and with the DNR.

Frederica Freyberg:

Very briefly, with less than a minute left, how delicate is this research, considering the frac sand industry in Wisconsin and the jobs it creates?

Crispin Pierce:

I think this is a very, very important issue, and I've been disappointed. I've approached four sand companies and they've all turned me down to do monitoring on-site. Businesses that work or that have their businesses within the area of a sand plant have also said no. I think it's really, really important that we move forward with these kinds of analyses to protect the public health.

Frederica Freyberg:

Crispin Pierce, out of  UW-Eau Claire, thank you very much.

Crispin Pierce:

You're welcome.

Frederica Freyberg:

We visited Fairmount Mineral Sand Mine in Menominee late last year reporting on their operation. In response to Professor Pierce's research, they say, “Our top objective is to protect our workers, public health and the environment by upholding strict standards for air quality and fugitive control . Our methods of monitoring, equipment used, and record keeping are approved and in full compliance.” You can find links to the UW-Eau Claire research, as well as the DNR response to it, on our website at wpt.org.


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