The widespread use of fracking—short for “hydraulic fracturing”— by oil and natural gas drilling companies has given rise to a boom in the mining of silica sand. But despite the spread of silica mining operations in the U.S., experts have raised concerns about the effect that these mines have on local communities and the health of residents and workers who are exposed to hazardous airborne silica sand.
Fracking is a drilling process used to extract oil and natural gas from underground rock formations. After a well is drilled into the rock, large volumes of water, silica sand, and a chemical mixture known as fracking fluids are pumped beneath the ground. This mixture causes cracks to form in the rock, which are held open by the silica sand, allowing oil or natural gas to flow to the surface.
The need for high amounts of sand in the fracking process has turned the once virtually worthless silica into a valuable commodity. According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, almost 50 million tons of silica sand were mined in the U.S. in 2011—a 60% increase from just two years before.
The need for large quantities of silica sand has led to the opening of massive silica mines in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Texas. However, these mines have drawn widespread resistance from local residents, who are concerned about the effect the mines could have on the quantity and quality of their water supply, as well as potential damage to their roads from the trucks that carry mined silica sand away from the mines.
Concerns have also been raised about the effects that exposure to this silica dust could have on fracking workers who are exposed to airborne particles in the workplace. Federal health officials have warned that breathing in silica dust could lead to silicosis, a scarring of the lung tissue caused by silica, or other respiratory disease.
Despite the health risks of airborne silica, many fracking workers are not adequately protected with safety equipment designed to limit their exposure to silica dust. Workers or residents who live near fracking sites who have been diagnosed with silicosis or other respiratory diseases may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the mining company that was responsible for their illnesses.