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Silica Sand Mining Worries Communities

The United States is increasing production of oil and natural gas through a process known as “fracking.” This process is sometimes called “hydraulic fracking” because it uses pressurized water. Fracking requires the use of “silica sand.” Demand for the sand could rise as much as 200 percent over the next five years. But along with rising demand come concerns about silica sand mining operations. People who live near the mines are worried about how the sand will affect their businesses and their health.

There has been an increase in the mining of silica sand in the American state of Illinois. And people who live near the mines are worried.

Hickory Hollow Campground is a popular place to stay for some of the several million people who visit the Illinois River Valley every year. The campground, in the village of Utica, is a short drive from a state park.

“It’s a family campground where we have RVs (recreational vehicles), tent camping…”

That is Sandy Esmond. She is the owner of the campground. She says the camp now has a new neighbor -- a mining operation that is extracting white silica sand from the ground.

Before the sand is shipped, it sits in large piles near the campground. But Sandy Esmond says it does not stay there.

“Well, I have to take a leaf blower at least once a day and blow the sand off of everything.”

She says the sand does more than interfere with day-to-day activities. It is also causing health problems.

“Well, a lot of people come out here (and), I imagine, (have) asthma, health issues, breathing problems.”

Robert Cohen is a Clinical Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at the Chicago School of Public Health. He says silica can be dangerous.

“Well, silica is a pretty toxic substance, especially freshly-fractured silica. It can cause a number of bad health effects in the body. So it causes cancer, respiratory cancers. And so that is another important concern with silica exposures.”

Dr. Cohen has examined people who worked in silica sand mining operations. But he says little is known about the effect of sand particles in the air on human health.

“If the mine is a surface mine, and there is ambient wind that is carrying this freshly-fractured dust and your house is covered with dust and you run your finger along the surfaces and you find it, then there is some exposure there and there probably should be some concern.”

The mining operation has taken measures to try to keep the sand from blowing into the Hickory Hollow Campground. But Sandy Esmond says the mine has not done enough.

“I’ve expressed all my concerns to them. You know, ‘Oh, we understand, we understand.’ But do they really?”

Ms. Esmond worries that the sight of sand on the campground will force her to sell her business.

“I hate to do that. We have a lot of good customers that come. Where are all these people going to go that love to camp?”

Earlier this year, the Illinois legislature approved a bill to study the effect of silica sand mining on homes and businesses. Governor Bruce Rauner has yet to sign the bill.

In an email to VOA this week, the governor’s press secretary said only that Mr. Rauner “will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk.” Even if the governor does sign the bill, the study would not be completed until January 2017.

Our office has attempted to speak with silica companies, but we have so far not been able to do so.

I’m Bob Doughty.

VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reported on this story from Utica, Illinois. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

fracking – n. (sometimes called “hydraulic fracking”); a technique in which rock is fractured, or broken, by a highly-pressurized liquid (usually water mixed with sand and other materials)

silica sand – n. one of the most common kinds of sand found in the world; it is used in industrial processing;

extract – v. to remove (something) by pulling it out or cutting it out

pile – n. a group of things that are put one on top of another

asthma – n. a physical condition that makes breathing difficult

pretty – adj. to a great degree or extent; very

toxic – adj. containing harmful or poisonous substances

respiratory – adj. of or relating to breathing

exposure(s) – n. the fact or condition of being affected by something or experiencing something; the condition of being exposed to something

ambient – adj. surrounding on all sides

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