Five years into the exploration for natural gas in the Fayetteville Shale, most Arkansans know about the hydraulic fracturing process and its links to environmental havoc, including poisoned wells and radioactive wastewater in various parts of the United States and increased earthquakes here in Arkansas. Now, a mushrooming side industry is beginning to attract national attention to farming communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota. This industry drains waterways and creates hundred-acre gashes where there once was forest, hills and pasture, and it can pollute the air and water with invisible toxic particles. It's called frac sand mining, and on a quieter scale, it's also happening — and on the verge of expanding — in North Arkansas.
The process, which environmentalists have compared to mountain-top removal coal mining, involves scraping or blasting a hole about 50 to 100 feet in width and depth to access high-purity silica. During the fracking process, the silica is added to a mixture of water and chemicals and pumped, at high pressure, into natural gas mines to open cracks in shale plates. This type of silica is only found in a few states. Wisconsin and Minnesota have larger deposits than Arkansas, but Minnesota's regulatory system is complex enough to deter many corporations. Neither state has Arkansas's home field advantage, since frac sand from the Ozarks only has to travel about 100 miles to reach the Fayetteville Shale.
Thomas Woletz, with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, estimates that there are more than 75 active frac sand mines in his state, and there could be as many as 100. Fewer than three years ago, there were only five, and some of those were decades old. There have been a couple of large sand and water spills in Wisconsin, and a Chippewa Falls group, Chippewa Concerned Citizens, sued the city in an attempt to stop a frac sand processing plant that was eventually constructed inside city limits.
Frac sand mining in Arkansas looks nothing like it does in Wisconsin. Only one company, Guion's Unimin, is actively mining frac sand. But in the past three years, despite low natural gas prices, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has issued frac sand mining permits to 10 companies, largely concentrated in Izard and Independence counties. Locals say there are other companies that have yet to apply for permits. Last year, the Batesville City Council approved plans for a Florida-based company, American Silica, to lay railroad track for a $15 million frac sand processing plant at the north end of a public park. About 15 residents from the Spring Valley neighborhood, near the proposed plant, showed up at the council meeting to oppose the decision. In a setup similar to that of Chippewa Falls, the plant would handle sand mined 14 miles away in Cave City.
Because of oversupply, natural gas prices began to drop in 2008, hitting the lowest point of $1.91 per 1,000 cubic square feet (mcf) in April 2012. But by early January, prices had already risen to $3.46 per mcf. According to Bill Holland, an editor with Platts, which publishes energy news for McGraw Hill, recovering prices don't always translate into increased fracking. In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Southwestern Energy, the largest presence in the Fayetteville Shale, announced plans to cut spending in Arkansas by 19 percent in 2013.
But as Sheffield Nelson, a former gas executive who spearheaded Arkansas's natural gas severance tax drive, has reiterated in press conferences, fracking operations represent billions in investment dollars. Huge corporations are looking to ride the waves rather than get out, to the point that they're often willing to drill new wells even when they're not fracking, in order to maintain active leases, he said.
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