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From Farmland to Frac Sand

It’s perhaps fitting that at a lookout point at the park’s lodge, visitors can see Covia’s North Utica mining infrastructure just beyond the dense foliage spread out in front of them. After all, the same stone they come to marvel at fueled the frac sand rush.

LaSalle County, with seven frac sand mines, is the country’s unofficial frac sand capital. While Texas is home to the most sand and gravel mining by volume in the nation, Wisconsin and Illinois are close behind, and the sand from this region is considered higher quality for fracking, because of its uniform size and shape. Since the sandstone is close to the surface, mining it is also easier than in other places. Given nearly 80 percent of Illinois’ total land is in farms, the majority of the stone is sitting under cropland.

While the USDA directs some resources toward farmland preservation programs like conservation easements, the federal government does not regulate private land use, farmland or otherwise. LaSalle County and village governments control land use through zoning laws. When a company wants to mine land zoned for agriculture, it must apply for “special use” permits that trigger public hearings. In most cases, officials approve the special use, even when the land and site evaluation shows the land is valuable for farming. (They often add conditions the companies must agree to, addressing issues like blasting frequency, light and noise pollution, and impacts on neighbors’ wells.)

“[The mines] can keep expanding out and down,” said Robert Goodin, a mineral commodity specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), citing the vast amount of silica in the region that has yet to be extracted. Smart Sand tells shareholders that based on its current volume, the company could mine the land it owns there for another 161 years.

U.S. Silica runs its operations from a 900-acre pit in the center of Ottawa, a town that sits between North Utica and Wedron and feels like a big city by comparison. The company still operates a processing plant there but its blasting and digging has moved across the Illinois River and is gradually moving west, closer and closer to Starved Rock, where drivers pass the excavation of farm fields minutes before the park entrance sign appears. U.S. Silica secured that continued expansion in 2017 when it bought Mississippi Sand, another frac sand mining company. Years earlier, Mississippi Sand’s application to mine these 300 acres of farmland—which the Conservation District also determined to be “highly productive”—led to significant controversy.

More than 1,000 people signed petitions opposing the mine. During a public hearing that stretched to midnight and had to be extended to a second day, some locals and union representatives voiced support for the project based on the jobs it would provide. Many residents and environmentalists objected, however, based on its proximity to Starved Rock, the health and quality-of-life effects of the mines already in operation, and the loss of farmland. “As the saying goes, they’re not making farmland. It is only to be saved,” Sierra Club volunteer Joyce Blumenshine testified. “Because you can’t eat what is left in that great big pit in the ground when the silica sand is gone.”

The county board approved the permit. U.S. Silica now claims it has just under 100 million tons of “proven and probable” silica reserves in Ottawa, according to a 2022 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and its annual production capacity there is 4 million tons, meaning it could operate for another 25 years.

The current high oil and gas prices don’t just increase overall demand for frac sand, they can also drive companies away from cheaper sources toward La Salle’s premium products. “Companies might say it’s worth it to spend more money on those sands, because they will have better flow rates and produce more [fuel],” said Goodin.

“They control the farmer. If the farmer squawks too much, then they take the ground away from him. So, they really have suppressed [dissent] by buying all of this ground.”

While farmland is being destroyed, many land-owning farmers have cashed out by selling their land to the mining companies. Ray Aubry and Bill Stack, founders of a group called Conserve Our Rural Ecosystem (CORE), don’t really blame them. Aubry is a retired educator with 18 grandchildren. His house, just north of Smart Sand’s mine, is surrounded by cropland. On a clear day, if you look west over the alfalfa field outside the front door, you can see the outline of Wedron’s mountain of mined earth on the horizon.

Stack, who lives just to the west, was long what he called a “plain corn-and-bean farmer” while also working an off-farm job. Now, he leases his land to another farmer and raises some cattle.

From left: Bill Stack and Ray Aubry. (Photo by Lisa Held)

Together, the pair has tried to raise community awareness of what they see as threats to farmland, food production, and their homeland’s ecosystems. Still, they can rattle off the names of farmers who have sold their acreage for top dollar and bought double or triple the number of acres elsewhere. Those high land prices then shut out farmers with fewer resources, they say. As many of the younger farmers in the region lease land from the mining companies, it makes it harder for Aubry and Stack to organize locals around the impacts the companies are having. “They control the farmer. If the farmer squawks too much, then they take the ground away from him. So, they really have suppressed [dissent] by buying all of this ground,” Aubry said.

In 2016, CORE fought the opening of a new mine in the county with the help of pro bono lawyers from Northwestern University. They succeeded in that one instance, but silica mining continues to expand.

“Farm Land not Frac Sand”—their sign—still stands in a field on the way to Troy Grove, another small village northwest of North Utica. There, another mine stores hulking piles of silica sand right beside a residential neighborhood, and sand lines the street approaching the entrance. On an 85-degree Sunday in June, residents were outside tending their gardens and washing cars. A little boy and girl stood at the top of a ladder on a plastic swimming pool, contemplating the jump into the water below. The mining plant’s rusted infrastructure towered above them, and white particles could be seen blowing through the air, like soft snow.

The MBI silica plant in Troy Grove, Illinois. (Photo by Lisa Held)

The MBI silica plant in Troy Grove, Illinois. (Photo by Lisa Held)

That “snow” might appear any time of year. In May, Diane Gassman was driving past Smart Sand’s plant on the other side of a farm field about a half mile from her home when she saw what looked like a sandstorm. Smart Sand piles its silica sand right inside the gate there, uncovered. She took out her phone and filmed waves of white blowing hard across the landscape. The wind was intense that day, but on calmer days she says the sand often blows off the property and into the neighborhood. “We’ll come out in the morning and sometimes I will write the word ‘sand’ in it and take a picture, because it’s coating everything,” Gassman said.

While the frac sand itself is not dangerous, mining, processing, and moving it releases fine particulate matter that can include crystalline silica particles. Exposure to particulate matter is linked to respiratory problems such as asthma and decreased lung function, as well as premature death in people with lung or heart conditions. Crystalline silica, specifically, is a known carcinogen, and exposure is associated with increased risk of lung cancer, an irreversible condition called silicosis, and COPD. Because the particles are small enough to travel in the bloodstream to the liver and kidneys, exposure is also linked to kidney and autoimmune diseases. These effects have primarily been observed in workers who are exposed to the dust in mines and at construction sites, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has specific regulations in place to protect workers.

“They go to work and wear protective equipment,” Phil Gassman said. “We live in it.”

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