There are certainly a number of angles one can consider when talking about the implications of frac sand mining.
When a county decides whether to permit a mine to open within its jurisdiction, it has to consider how frac sand will affect the environment and health of nearby residents. It has to consider what truck traffic in and out of a mine might do to local roads. It must decide if risking a decrease in tourism is worth a company’s business.
But with all the tangible effects frac sand mining may have on a community, people — not just city or county officials — might have to look deeper. Some may wrestle with the morality of such an issue, one that has already divided factions within Houston County, which has a moratorium on frac sand mining but remains no less attractive to potential mining operations.
On Oct. 22, a group known as the Houston County Protectors attempted to broach the subject of morality and frac sand mining by hosting a forum at La Crescent High School. The group invited Donovan Hommen, a retired Lutheran pastor from Winneshiek County, Iowa, an area grappling with the same issues as Houston County.
Hommen, who has a master’s of divinity and a doctorate in psychology, attempted to clarify moralistic issues surrounding large-scale mining. He said he hadn’t thought deeply about that issue until asked to speak about it, but said a deeper understanding of people’s life experiences, histories and social norms can enrich the public debate.
“Both facts and values, however they may agree or disagree, are crucial and must be weighed in context as people aspire toward conflict resolution and struggle for ways of moving forward that will promote the common good in their communities, nation and within the large web of life in which we are all embedded,” Dommen said.
It’s a weighty challenge, to be sure, but Dommen narrowed his scope to a handful of facts about frac sand mining he felt were worth considering.
Silica sand, he said, is of an ancient geological origin that is made up of pure quartz, extremely dense and almost perfectly round. It’s the key component in hydrologic fracking, which involves a drilling process that taps previously inaccessible natural gas and oil deposits miles below the Earth’s surface.
“It only recently has become a strategic commodity in huge demands by the energy industry,” he said, spurred by the creation of new technology that allows for fracking. This new industry, he said, is now dotting rural landscapes in places as close as Trempealeau County, Wis., and in turn altering neighbors’ ties with one another, causing disruption and unrest.
“Lots of people are stirred up and dismayed over what is happening to their communities,” he said. “They are concerned about the short- and long-term impacts of mining.”
Those concerns include air quality, children’s health, community cohesion, roads and bridges, property values, drinking water and recreational fishing, to name a few. But Dommen also researched the economic impact, and during his presentation, he quoted a source stating that “historically, mining has rarely served as a viable basis for long-term, environmentally sustainable economic development.”
But there’s no denying that, initially, there’s money in it, and some have decided the idea of quick wealth is fueled by nothing more than pure greed. Dommen, however, stressed that assumption is carried through by fundamental beliefs a person has that causes him to view an issue a certain way.
It’s appropriate for a person of integrity to stand up for those beliefs, but those same people must also decide whether what they say is helpful or hurtful to the overall goodwill of the community, Dommen asserted.
“These are the ever-present moral issues that constitute our human dignity ... and promote a better world,” he said.
Dommen offered that it isn’t up to other people to arbitrate another’s moral decisions but instead each individual must make those choices alone.
He also touched on property rights, which are enshrined in the Constitution. The issue settles around the ability for landowners to do as they please with their property, which could include opening it up for mining purposes. But Dommen argued those landowners don’t have the right to negatively affect their neighbor’s property, its value or people’s health or quality of life.
“Should someone have the right to lower their neighbor’s property values, expose their children to lung diseases, dry up wells, chase away tourists, wreck the roads we use and poison the water we all drink?” he asked. “Is this not a classic example of corporations passing on their costs to the public?”
Dommen admits people might not like the rhetoric surrounding frac sand mining but said it’s worth considering if the topic deserves more careful attention. His aim, he said, was to provide context to the issue and encourage people to think about the world — and our actions — in broader terms.
“Most of the Earth community has objectified nature. We treat the natural world as mere ‘stuff’ to be extracted, used and discarded or abandoned when we’re done with it,” he said. “Why have we done this? I believe it is because we have drifted from our spiritual depth. We have severed the lines that have anchored us to the mystical gift of nature. We have lost true communion with the natural world.”
How we think as a people is what’s at the core of the plight. He quoted a saying he once saw that quipped, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
“We can’t understand the world we have and the way of life,” he said, quoting another, “until we question our perception at its deepest levels.”