Sucking Up Water and Sand in the Quest for Natural Gas

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A domestic source of energy requires fracking, which requires sand and huge volumes of water. Mining sand also requires water. By the time natural gas reaches the consumer, copious amounts of water have been used to extract it. How willing are we to exchange water for gas? Is that answer already being handed to us?

Residents in southern Cooke and Montague counties had no idea EOG had purchased 1,400 acres of land with the intent to install a sand mine until they saw the brush being burned and land being cleared last fall. Locals who contacted their county commissioner and fire marshal were eventually directed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which gave them the number for EOG's air quality permit application, which laid out the extensive plans for excavating, processing and transporting frack sand, including a list of pollutants emitted into the air and estimated water use.

J-lynn Hare has land near EOG's property where she and her family spend free time and lives in Muenster, 10 miles east and in the planned trucking path for sand mine operations.

"The trucking that will go by is going to be amazing," Hare says. "There could be a truck driving by my house every four minutes. And, I have land within a mile of the sand mine. The serenity that we've had out there isn't going to be there anymore."

Ozlem Altiok found out about the sand mine after nearly getting overrun by passing trucks on the small country road where she lives.

"My friend was driving and suddenly looked in her rear-view mirror, then pulled over," Altiok says. "Two trucks went flying past us. We weren't used to having those type trucks on these roads and had no idea what the traffic was from. I asked her why she pulled over and she told me the same thing happened the day before. She just wanted to get out of their way. I went home that day and someone called me and asked if I'd heard about the sand mine. And that's the first time I knew what was going on."

Harris and Altiok created the "Save the Trinity Aquifer" group to serve as a comprehensive source of information about EOG's sand mine plans. They also learned more about the value of the sand they live on and why an oil and gas company wants to set up shop in their backyard.

Over the past few years the demand for sand in the United States has sharply increased because of its use in fracking. Natural gas producer Chesapeake Energy estimates that each fracking job requires about 2,000 tons of sand. After a gas well has been drilled, sand, water and chemicals are pumped under immense pressure through a pipe. As the granules and water are blasted into the tight shale, the sand props it open. (Hence, its industry label as a "proppant.")

Not just any sand can be used. Sand comes in different shapes, sizes and has names like Brady, Colorado and Ottawa. The bad news for residents around Saint Jo is that their sand is considered ideal for fracking.

EOG states that when the mine is running at full capacity, it will be able to produce 2,700 tons of sand a day. In addition to noise, dust, pollution, water usage and being an eyesore to an otherwise beautiful area, seven tractor-trailers could be leaving with a load of sand every hour. Given all the changes this sand mine will bring, local residents are apprehensive.

Sand is a vital part of the natural geology over this part of the Trinity Aquifer, which is called the outcrop zone.

"The Trinity Group consists of rock formations that tilt roughly eastward into the earth," says Dr. Paul Hudak with the geography department at the University of North Texas. "In the outcrop area, the formations are exposed at the land surface, and the aquifer is generally more vulnerable to the various sources of pollution that originate near the land surface."

The Trinity Aquifer system starts just south of the Red River and covers a huge swath through the middle of the state stopping just short of San Antonio. Up near Saint Jo, the aquifer feeds into Elm Fork Creek, which flows to Lake Ray Roberts. Primarily, the aquifer is a source of water for rural residents throughout the center of the state. In Cooke and Montague counties it is the main source of water for about 40,000 rural residents.

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.