When workers drilling tunnels at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, began to die, Union Carbide had an answer. It hadn't been taking adequate precautions against the inhalation of silica dust, a known danger to workers since the days of ancient Greece. Instead, in many cases, a company doctor would simply tell the families of the workers that they had died of "tunnelitis," and a local undertaker would be paid $50 to dispose of each corpse. A few years later, in 1935, a congressional subcommittee discovered that approximately 700 workers had perished while drilling through Hawk's Nest Mountain, many of them buried in unmarked graves at the side of the road just outside the tunnel. The subcommittee concluded that Union Carbide's project had been accomplished through a "grave and inhuman disregard of all considerations for the health, lives and future of the employees."
Despite the "Hawk's Nest Incident" and thousands of Depression-era lawsuits against foundries, mines, and construction companies, silicosis never disappeared. In the decades since, as TomDispatch authors David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz have repeatedly demonstrated, industry worked tirelessly to label silicosis a "disease of the past," even while ensuring that it would continue to be a disease of the present. By the late 1990s, the Columbia University researchers found that from New York to California, from Texas all the way back to West Virginia, millions of workers in foundries, shipyards, mines, and oil refineries, among other industries, were endangered by silica dust.
Today, there's a new silicosis scare on the horizon and a new eco-nightmare brewing in the far corners of rural America. Like the Hawk's Nest disaster it has flown under the radar -- until now.
Once upon a time, mining companies tore open hills or bored through or chopped off mountain tops to get at vital resources inside. They were intent on creating quicker paths through nature's obstacles, or (as at Gauley Bridge) diverting the flow of mighty rivers. Today, they're doing it merely to find the raw materials -- so-called frac sand -- to use in an assault on land several states away. Multinational corporations are razing ancient hills of sandstone in the Midwest and shipping that silica off to other pastoral settings around the United States. There, America's prehistoric patrimony is being used to devastating effect to fracture shale deposits deep within the earth -- they call it "hydraulic fracturing" -- and causing all manner of environmental havoc. Not everyone, however, is keen on this "sand rush" and coalitions of small-town farmers, environmentalists, and public health advocates are now beginning to stand firm against the big energy corporations running sand-mining operations in their communities.
Ground zero in this frac-fight is the rural Wisconsin towns to which TomDispatch's roving environmental reporter Ellen Cantarow traveled this spring to get the biggest domestic environmental story that nobody knows about. Walking the fields of family farms under siege and talking to the men and women resisting the corporations, Cantarow offers up a shocking report of vital interest. There's a battle raging for America's geological past and ecological future -- our fresh food and clean water supplies may hinge on who wins it. Nick Turse
How Rural America Got Fracked
The Environmental Nightmare You Know Nothing About
By Ellen Cantarow
If the world can be seen in a grain of sand, watch out. As Wisconsinites are learning, there's money (and misery) in sand -- and if you've got the right kind, an oil company may soon be at your doorstep.
March in Wisconsin used to mean snow on the ground, temperatures so cold that farmers worried about their cows freezing to death. But as I traveled around rural townships and villages in early March to interview people about frac-sand mining, a little-known cousin of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," daytime temperatures soared to nearly 80 degrees -- bizarre weather that seemed to be sending a meteorological message.
In this troubling spring, Wisconsin's prairies and farmland fanned out to undulating hills that cradled the land and its people. Within their embrace, the rackety calls of geese echoed from ice-free ponds, bald eagles wheeled in the sky, and deer leaped in the brush. And for the first time in my life, I heard the thrilling warble of sandhill cranes.
Yet this peaceful rural landscape is swiftly becoming part of a vast assembly line in the corporate race for the last fossil fuels on the planet. The target: the sand in the land of the cranes.
Five hundred million years ago, an ocean surged here, shaping a unique wealth of hills and bluffs that, under mantles of greenery and trees, are sandstone. That sandstone contains a particularly pure form of crystalline silica. Its grains, perfectly rounded, are strong enough to resist the extreme pressures of the technology called hydraulic fracturing, which pumps vast quantities of that sand, as well as water and chemicals, into ancient shale formations to force out methane and other forms of "natural gas."
That sand, which props open fractures in the shale, has to come from somewhere. Without it, the fracking industry would grind to a halt. So big multinational corporations are descending on this bucolic region to cart off its prehistoric sand, which will later be forcefully injected into the earth elsewhere across the country to produce more natural gas. Geology that has taken millions of years to form is now being transformed into part of a system, a machine, helping to drive global climate change.
"The valleys will be filled" the mountains and hills made level"
Boom times for hydraulic fracturing began in 2008 when new horizontal-drilling methods transformed an industry formerly dependent on strictly vertical boring. Frac-sand mining took off in tandem with this development.
"It's huge," said a U.S. Geological Survey mineral commodity specialist in 2009. "I've never seen anything like it, the growth. It makes my head spin." That year, from all U.S. sources, frac-sand producers used or sold over 6.5 million metric tons of sand -- about what the Great Pyramid of Giza weighs. Last month, Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Senior Manager and Special Projects Coordinator Tom Woletz said corporations were hauling at least 15 million metric tons a year from the state's hills.