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The Price of Sand cover image

The Price of Sand 2012

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Green Planet Films, PO Box 247, Corte Madera, CA 94976-0247; 415-377-5471
Produced by Jim Tittle
Directed by Jim Tittle
DVD, color, 60 min.

General Adult
Mining, Environmental Justice, Hydraulic Fracturing, Geology

Date Entered: 02/25/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

In the last ten years hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking,” has transformed the energy industry in the United States, creating a new energy boom. But perhaps the greatest impact of the industry has been on rural communities throughout the country. Those communities sit atop the lands ripe for the extraction of natural gas from shale. Landowners have become instant millionaires. Sleepy hamlets have turned into boom towns. This documentary tells another side of the story of hydraulic fracturing – the story of the communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota where pure silica sand mines are located. The sand from these silica deposits is essential to the process of hydraulic fracturing in oil production. “Frac sand,” as it is called in industry speak, is used in combination with water and various chemicals to fracture shale and release natural gas and oil – a technique that has transformed the sand itself into proverbial gold. While the environmental destruction caused by the process of hydraulic fracturing has attracted much press, little attention, until now, has focused on the ancillary industries which produce the necessary raw materials.

Those in favor of silica mining characterize everyone as winners – a story line that this documentary clearly and compellingly reveals to be untrue. But where big profits and money are concerned, few bother to listen to the story of the losers, who are often dismissed as anti-progress and jobs killers. In a process that the economist Joseph Schumpeter once dubbed the “creative destruction” of capitalism, older communities and the economies that sustain them are the primary victims of profit-driven development.

The primary strength of this documentary is to focus on the human impact of “frac sand” for hydraulic fracturing, the unexpected and often unexamined interconnections between technology, society, and culture. Perhaps most disturbing is the degree to which politicians and regulators allow the mining companies to operate in almost complete secrecy, buying up land and setting up mines with no requirements for environmental impact statements and public discussions. In the interest of development, regulators and politicians have waived those requirements.

The scale and speed of the new industry’s growing footprint is astounding: in two years Wisconsin has experienced a tenfold increase in sand frac mines. Extracting the sand requires open-pit mining that turns thousands of acres of rolling hills and mountainsides into pockmarked, de-forested holes. One truck filled with tons of sand passes down small county roads and down the main street of sleepy hamlets every 15 seconds, night and day. The mines also produce tons of dust that settles onto and into nearby homes; industry representatives and state officials characterize it as harmless, though silica dust, according to experts, can be very toxic. To avoid asthmatic reactions residents must wear masks outside. As one farmer put it: “You can farm the same land over and over again. But once you mine it, it’s gone.”

It is a truism, though one often ignored, that democracy only works if people make it work for them. Only when it is often too late do people realize that the system has been rigged in favor of business and industrial interests. Yet it would also be far too simplistic to posit a divide between the interests of the “people” and the rich and exploitative. Many locals benefit from the infusion of money that the energy industry brings into the local community, pitting not simply the community against the newcomers but individuals and families within the community against each other. The documentary avoids facile conclusions about evil outsiders exploiting locals and instead focuses on the divisions within the communities that the new energy boom, along with natural gas and oil, has created.