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Fracking lecture explores link to silica sand mining

Hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas doesn’t have a presence in the state, but the impact of fracking is felt locally with the debate over silica mining in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

Water and air contamination linked to fracking, as well as related concerns over the extraction of silica sand used in the mining process, was the topic of a lecture and panel discussion Thursday night at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

“(Hydraulic fracturing) is a process that’s here to stay and it’s just beginning in terms of global application,” said Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist with Stanford and Duke Universities.

Jackson’s lecture, titled “Fracking: What We Know and Don’t Know About its Impacts on Water,” presented research on leakage of gases like methane into water supplies near gas and oil mines.

Although a recent boom in hydraulic fracturing — a process that uses horizontal drilling and water pressure to increase well output — poses environmental and health challenges, Jackson said it also has benefits, including lower natural gas prices and job creation.

The question, he said, is how fracking will fit in with the country’s overall energy plan. “As a society we have to decide what we’re going to invest in and where our energy will come from in the future.”

Silica mining

Many of the same risks associated with fracking also hold true for silica mining, said Ginny Yingling, the Minnesota Department of Health’s lead investigator of water quality at frac-sand mining operations.

Yingling was part of a panel discussion following Jackson’s lecture that also included University of Minnesota mechanical engineering professor Alptekin Aksan and environmental health sciences professor Deborah Swackhamer.

“It struck me that there are some real parallels between hydraulic fracturing and frac-sand mining,” Yingling said, particularly when it comes to health and environmental research lagging behind the mining industry.

As with the fracking debate, Yingling said it’s important to first investigate how and where silica mining should be done, calling for a “holistic” approach to limit its impact on local communities.

The lecture was part of speaker series sponsored by the University Of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences and the Freshwater Society, a Minnesota-based water conservation group.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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