A waterfall at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. (Photo by Anne Hornyak via Creative Commons)
For a century, the picturesque river town of Ottawa, Illinois, has supplied sand to a nation, with several companies mining high quality silica sand from the Illinois River Valley to supply makers of glass, molds to make auto parts, paint, and other industrial products.
But what’s coming to Ottawa and nearby towns in the Illinois River Valley is not ordinary sand mining, says Farley Andrews, an Ottawa-based photographer and school bus driver. It’s “hypermining”—sand mining on steroids.
That’s because the great frac sand rush that has engulfed Wisconsin and Minnesota is making inroads in Illinois. And right now, environmentalists say, frac sand mining threatens one of Illinois’ most beloved and iconic state parks—and perhaps the entire Illinois River Valley.
“Our experience here is that there’s probably no one watching and thinking and worrying about this,” said Glynnis Collins, executive director of Prairie Rivers Network, a Champaign, Illinois-based river conservation group. No one knows the extent of the sand mines planned in Illinois, but Wisconsin-style frac sand mining could do serious damage to the fragile ecology of the Illinois River Valley, she said.
“I don’t even know how much of that is at stake, and I fear that we won’t know until it’s done,” Collins said.
As the natural gas industry ramps up hydrofracking operations from New York to Texas, demand rises for industrial quantities of sand. Frackers need it to prop open cracks in deep underground shale deposits, allowing natural gas to flow freely toward the surface.
The best sand for fracking has quartz grains that are relatively pure, hard enough to withstand the pressure thousands of feet below the earth, and round enough to allowing natural gas to flow around them easily, Tony Giordano, president of Kirkwood, Missouri–based Mississippi Sand.
Such sand is not common. Some of the world’s best deposits occur in the Midwest, in thick sandstone formations left behind by ancient seas. And as the fracking boom has taken off, so has demand for Midwestern sand.
“This is the best sand in the world,” said Annie Mwinga, a Milwaukee-based environmental engineer who works in the sand mining industry. “China wants this sand.” The Midwestern sand mining industry, she said, is “going to be huge.”