Sunday, May 26, 2013

Frack Sand: Coming to a Railroad Near You?

Fracking a well in northeast PA (provided)

One thing you can be certain of if you're living next to a gas well: dust. Dust from trucks coming and going all hours of the day or night, dust from the drill rig, and dust from the frack job. While some of this is just plain old ground up soil, frack sand is special. It's not dirt, but instead tiny silica crystals - tiny sharp crystals just the right size for breathing in and lodging into the interior of worker's lungs. Not to mention the lungs of people living and breathing near drill sites.

It can take up to four million pounds of frack sand to stimulate a single well. Sand that starts in Wisconsin and travels by rail to places like Binghamton, NY. From there the sand is loaded onto trucks and hauled, across the state border to drill pads in PA. Sand is spilled in the rail yard, blows out of truck hatches, and ends up in air that people - children, grandparents, mothers and fathers - breathe. These aren't workers who wear protective respiratory masks. They are... the "collateral damage" of environmental exposure.

Photo-journalist Vera Scroggins recently took a field trip to the Binghamton, NY rail yard to watch how frack sand is handled there. Her assessment: not too carefully. As the trucker said, "we wear the masks on the drill pad."

Eric Essweing, a workplace safety expert who conducts research with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found that workers in the fracking industry are at risk because of their exposure to silica dusts. Last year he and his colleagues visited 11 sites in five states: Arkansas, Colorado, Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. At every site they found high levels of silica in the air - so high that the respirators workers wore did not protect them from this excessive exposure. In fact, 79 percent of the air samples they collected had silica levels that exceeded NIOSH and OSHA recommended levels. Thirty percent of the samples had silica levels 10 times higher than the recommended level, and one was measured at more than 100 times the recommended limit.

Those levels are set for workers - using the average adult male to calculate health impacts. There are NO recommended exposure levels for children and others who wouldn't normally be in such an environment.

OSHA and NIOSH published a "Hazard Alert" - a great resource for workers who can demand respirators and pressure their employers to institute steps to reduce frack sand exposure. But it does nothing to address windblown frack sand in Binghamton and other cities and towns. Nor does it address exposure to citizens who become unwitting casualties of the rush to frack wells.

Last week the Tompkins County Worker's Center issued a statement warning people seeking employment in gasland of some workplace hazards on the well pad. "While jobs in fracking may offer high pay, they come at a price," says the Center. "A worker may get a job — and never be able to work again. Workers are often the first to be exposed to the hazards that later affect the whole community." Their message: Think Twice.


  1. OSHA has come the past month or two to test two fracking sites in our county and tested the workers and the results will be available in about a month to see if the silica dust exceeds the allowable limits. And you are right about the wind-blown silica dust down onto homes nearby and areas where people live, who are not covered by OSHA. Thanks, for this article.

    1. thank you for taking videos that show what workers and residents experience in gasland.