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Sand is essential for modern construction. Almost every new office tower, road and shopping mall being built in Asia’s booming cities is made with concrete mixed with sand. And to get more sand, companies and people are pulling sand out of rivers and oceans at an unprecedented rate, say scientists. And in the deep ocean waters off the U.S., sand is being excavated to restore coastlines from Louisiana to New Jersey. Some estimate that extracting sand is a $70-billion industry. Diane and a panel of guests take a look at the increasing demand for sand, and concerns about the impact of dredging on river and ocean life worldwide.
- Vince Beiser Journalist whose reporting is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and Wired magazine.
- David Roche Attorney, Environmental Law Institute
- Geoffrey Wikel Oceanographer, Division of Environmental Assessment, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U.S. Dept of the Interior
- Barry Holliday Executive director, Dredging Contractors of America; former chief of navigation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Sand is being dredged and extracted from oceans and rivers at unprecedented rates worldwide. With me to talk about what's behind the rising demand for sand and the impact sand mining is having on the environment, Geoffrey Wikel with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Barry Holliday with Dredging Contractors of America.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us from NPR West in Culver City, California, journalist Vince Beiser. And from KGNU in Boulder, Colorado, David Roche at the Environmental Law Institute. I do invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. GEOFFREY WIKELThank you very much.
MR. BARRY HOLLIDAYThanks, good to be here.
MR. DAVID ROCHEGood morning.
MR. VINCE BEISERHey, Diane.
REHMAll right. Vince Beiser, I'd like to start with you. Sand is being excavated or mined at rates we've not seen before. Talk about what's happening globally.
BEISERSure. So in a nutshell, sand, even though nobody ever really thinks about it, it's the most boring-seeming substance in the world. It's the thing that our cities are literally made out of because if you think about it, pretty much every building, every office block, every apartment tower that gets built all around the world is made of concrete or at least made partially with concrete and concrete is nothing but sand glued together with cement.
BEISERSame goes for all the roads that connect all those buildings, asphalt, concrete, it's basically just sand. All the glass that goes into those buildings and all those vehicles, glass is all made from sand. The silicon chips that power our computers and our cell phones also made from sand. So in a nutshell, there's more and more people in the world all the time, we're up to 7 billion people on this planet, more and more of them are moving into cities. Fifty years ago, there was about 750 million people living in cities.
BEISERToday, there's 4 billion people living in cities. That takes a lot of sand, much more sand that has ever been used before. So as a result, there's so much demand for sand all over the world that riverbeds are being stripped bare, beaches are being stripped bare. There's a lot of environmental and human damage that's being caused by this incredible demand for sand.
REHMAnd to you, David Roche, the demand for sand has also increased here in the United States. Talk about that.
ROCHEYeah, thanks, Diane. The way I like to think about it is that there's too main uses. So Vince was just getting into using it, the concrete, that really is strong internationally. The other use is moving it, which is a little bit distinct, but also involves a lot of the same issues. So in the U.S., we don't have the moonscapes that you're seeing overseas where the sand is stripped bare on the beaches and that sort of thing. But what you are getting is dwindling sand resources on the coast so lots of dredging, lots of sand used on borrow sites, basically to build up our beaches.
ROCHEYou know, sea level rise is combining with a lot of other factors to necessitate that we do something with our beaches. I mean, it started on the Jersey shore, like most good stories do, back in the early 1900s and it's continued all over the country today. And then, inland, you actually have massive sand mines in the upper Midwest and that sand is used for more consumptive uses, like what Vince was getting into. In the U.S., that's often fracking. So they use it as a propend when they inject it in fracking.
ROCHESo with the slight downturn in the market, that's a little bit less of a concern, but all of these issues, relatively unknown. It's not something that people think about a lot. It's not something that lawyers think about a lot. It's not something that environmentalists have really delved into until recently so it's a huge issue that we're confronting on a bunch of different areas in the United States.
REHMBut Geoffrey Wikel, as an oceanographer with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management at the U.S. Department of the Interior, all of this sand is being dredged from somewhere. Where is it coming from?
WIKELThat's a great question, Diane. Sand has a fascinating history and story. It takes a long time to arrive in the places where you ultimately dredge it from. Ultimately it's sources from mountains that erode, travel down the rivers and land in the ocean. Over time, ocean processes rework that sand into its deposits. BOEM, our responsibility is to authorize potential use of sand on the outer continental shelf, that’s about 3 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles offshore. Generally speaking, that sand is used in beach nourishment in coastal restoration projects principally along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico coast.
WIKELMost of the sand is obtained within three to ten miles from the shoreline, out to about 100 feet of water depth.
REHMSo that means you're dredging the sand from the ocean, bringing it in. What does that do to the fish and wildlife around that area?
WIKELWell, to be honest, it is not an impact-free enterprise. There are environmental impacts. However, we carefully study them. A host federal, state agency, even dredge contractors take the environmental consequences quite sincerely. We perform a lot of environmental research in advance of the potential use of a sand resource or a borrow area. We conduct environmental impact analysis. We consult with federal and state experts on sensitive environmental resources, that could be endangered species like sea turtles. It could be cultural resources like shipwrecks. We do our best to manage and mitigate the environmental impacts.
REHMAnd Barry Holliday, as executive director of Dredging Contractors of America, it's companies like yours that have really seen this growth of an industry in sand.
HOLLIDAYYes. We -- actually, it's one of our principle activities and one that we take very seriously. As Geoff eluded to, one of the things that we do is try to partner with both the environmental regulatory agencies like BOEM, EPA, National Marine Fishery Service in our work that we do, usually for the core of engineers on these projects. And a lot of time, the contracts actually have a pretty elaborate environmental requirements. Sometimes we have to dredge very narrow bands and leave mounds in between for environmental reasons or we have to dredge almost precision dredging to get very close to the -- to hard bottoms without touching below. And so there's a lot of protection process that goes on.
REHMYeah, explain how this dredging actually works.
HOLLIDAYThere's usually two main types of dredging for beach work or dredging sand off shore. The principle one is actually a sea-going vessel called hopper dredge and it's really a big ship, sometimes it's over 400 feet long, that has basically a big opening in the middle and it'll have pipes, one on each side, they're called drag arms and they go down and literally like a vacuum cleaner and they suck the sand up into the open area of the dredge and then it'll go near shore and connect to what we call a monobuoy or a pump-out source through a pipeline.
HOLLIDAYSometimes if it's a long distance, there may be a booster to help push this sand onto the beach. And then, it's worked on the beach with pipes and dozers and there's a lot of activity there that requires a lot of safety issues.
REHMGeoffrey Wikel, tell us if you have an concerns about what's going on here.
WIKELWell, I can tell you, that's principally our business at BOEM to be concerned about environmental impacts and provide for prudent stewardship not only of the natural resource, the sand itself, but the environmental resources that are in the ecosystem, whether that be offshore or onshore. We spend millions of dollars every year in environmental studies to make sure we understand what's happening both in the short term and in the long term. That could be fish habitat. That could be looking at how sediment moves in the system. At the end of the day, BOEM, with its partners, whether that be National Marine Fishery Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service or equivalent agencies at the state level, we design mitigation that is required in every one of these projects to make sure that habitats are being protected, that animals are being protected to the extent possible.
REHMAll right. And Vince Beiser, tell me about your concerns about all this dredging.
BEISERSo there are a lot of concerns about how the impact of all this sand extractions is having. It's true here in the United States. We have, you know, much better regulations, much better oversight than in a lot of places. Nonetheless, there are a lot of concerns about the impact that offshore dredging is having on coral reefs. In places like Southern Florida, they've actually -- they've used so much to replenish their beaches by now that they've literally run out of sand offshore.
BEISERSo places like Miami Beach, Broward County were Fort Lauderdale is, they're having to look for sand. They're having to basically try to beg for sand from counties further to the north. They're even talking about importing it from the Bahamas, things like that. So that's one issue. The other thing is what David mentioned about frack sand mining, which is really -- it's a really big issue in places like western Wisconsin. I was out there a few months ago. And in a nutshell, what's happened is, as David mentioned, in order to do fracking, you need sand. You need a particular kind of sand to hold open the cracks in the rock after you've fractured it.
BEISERThere's no oil or gas whatsoever in Wisconsin, but there is a lot of this particular kind of sand that's really useful for fracking.
REHMAll right. Well, I have to take just a short break here, Vince Beiser. He is a journalist who's written a great deal about sand. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about sand mining, something that is increasingly going on globally as it's being used in the growth of cities, of parks, of huge buildings, also used in fracking. And one of our guests, Vince Beiser, a journalist, has written articles about this the New York Times and Wired magazine. He's also writing a book about what he calls the global sand shorting -- shortage. His reporting is funded in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Vince Beiser, how did you get started on this whole concern about sand mining?
BEISERYes, sort of by accident, to tell you the truth. I just stumbled across an article in an Indian newspaper about a year or two ago talking about what they call the sand mafia, believe it or not. And come to find out that in India, where, you know, cities are just exploding, the amount of construction that's going on there is just absolutely unbelievable, and there's so much of it, there's so much of a shortage of sand in some places that it's created a black market in sand, which is now run by criminal gangs.
BEISERI mean, it sounds crazy, and it kind of is except that it's really, really serious business over there. There's literally criminal gangs running the sand business who do what criminal gangs do everywhere. They bribe police, they bribe government officials to let them get away with it. if you really get in their way, they will kill you. Hundreds of people have been murdered over sand in the last few years in India.
REHMAll right, I want to get back to the question we were talking about before the break. Geoffrey Wikel of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has said that the U.S. Department of Interior is watching closely and taking care of the environmental impact of all of this sand dredging. Vince Beiser, how do you see it?
BEISERWell, like I said, I mean, you know, in this country we do have -- you know, we've got much better regulations and oversight than in a lot of places. So that's a good thing. There's always a lot of question, though, as to, you know, whether there's -- whether the protections that we've got in place are adequate. And I think there's actually a lot of question about that because -- partly because, you know, it's an issue that so few people really pay attention to.
BEISERAs I mentioned, you know, there's -- a lot of folks are concerned about the impact on marine life and coral reefs from the dredging. A lot of sand mining does not happen -- it happens on land rather than in water, which is, you know, outside of the rubric of the BOEM, Like I was talking about in Wisconsin, where they've torn up hundreds of farmlands and forests to get at the frack sand that's on land. So it's not only a marine issue, it's also something that affects, you know, farming areas, that can affect groundwater.
BEISERAnd there's other places, as well, like the San Francisco Bay is being mined for sand. They're dredging sand off the bottom of San Francisco Bay, and a lot of -- there's a lot of concern there that that is causing erosion of the beaches just south of San Francisco, like Ocean Beach.
REHMDavid Roche, do you want to jump in?
ROCHEYeah, so to jump -- to add to what Vince is saying, the word of the day with sand is uncertainty. So if you think about this from three different angles, you can see the uncertainty unfold in a way that makes it so, you know, we have to do this, but we have to do it smart. So the first is what Geoffrey was getting at with the environmental impacts, where we're -- BOEM is doing great work on that, but BOEM's jurisdiction is mostly three miles offshore or greater.
ROCHEIn between there are so many other issues that can happen on state waters, on coastal beaches, and states are looking at that, other federal agencies are looking at that, but there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and that gets to the second one, which is this regulatory uncertainty. Unlike oil and gas and other things, there really isn't permitting -- a permitting and licensing process that has been vetted over time, viewing these environmental impacts in context. So that's the second issue.
ROCHEAnd then the third issue is just about the physical processes themselves of sand. There's, you know, kind of -- an apocryphal story of Albert Einstein talking to his son when he found out that he wanted to study sand, sediment transport, and he said, oh, don't do that, it's far too complicated. And so while Einstein's son went on to be one of our top sedimentary transport scientists, there's a lot of uncertainty about what happens to the sand when you move it, what it's going to do to the ecosystem.
ROCHESo yeah, and BOEM and others are contacting -- or combating that uncertainty, but it's a tough problem that is going to take time.
REHMI'm curious, as many of our listeners are, why -- as to why construction-grade sand is dredged from the ocean bottom. What about the sand available in deserts around the world, Barry? Why isn't that used instead of dredging?
HOLLIDAYWell, excuse me, unfortunately the sand in the desert is subjected to the wind erosion, and it tends to make it in a shape that's not conducive to being agglomerated into the concrete. And so it tends to be not the most suitable size and shape of material.
REHMWe don't think of sand as having different sizes and shapes, and clearly what you're saying is it is different, Geoffrey.
WIKELYeah, that is an absolutely critical factor. In the U.S., it's not so much a story of shortage offshore, but it's finding the right kind of sand in the right place. So the grain size, the sorting of the grain size, the mineralogy, the color are all critically important for different aspects. It could be the performance of a beach, how it withstands storms, wave attack, how a beach is suitable for habitat for sea turtles, for example. The color and mineralogy of sand on a beach dictates in part the success of nesting sea turtles and nesting sea birds. These are all concerns that we take a close look at and study.
REHMAnd Vince, tell us about your reporting of the environmental impact of sand mining in India and Indonesia. What is that doing, say, to the natural habitat?
BEISERSo it's not only India and Indonesia, it's dozens of countries around the world. I mean, basically, like I said, cities are growing everywhere. There's a huge demand for sand in practically every country on Earth. So in India, in China, in Cambodia, these are just places that I've personally visited, but like I say, in dozens of other places it's causing huge damage to rivers because as Barry mentioned, you can't use desert sand for construction. You need sand that comes from river bottoms, from flood plains, and a lot of those -- so a lot of the sources are some of the most important rivers in the world, the Yangtze River, the Mekong River, the Ganges. These are all being mined really heavily. It's causing huge damage to basically whatever lives in those rivers.
BEISERIf you think about it, if you're -- you know, you think about the fish or whatever kind of plants and organisms live on the bottom of those rivers, suddenly that whole floor gets torn out, it's -- you know, it makes life pretty difficult for whatever's living there. So for instance I was just in China a few weeks ago. China has this huge lake, Lake Poyang, the biggest freshwater lake in China, it's the most important migratory destination for winter birds, it's now also the biggest sand mine in the world.
BEISERThey're pulling out just an unbelievable amount of sand out of it. It's causing huge, you know, problems for the birds, for endangered species that live and also, let's not forget, for the people who depend on those fish. You know, there's all these -- there are all kinds of fishing villages around the lake, and their livelihoods are basically being wiped out. And like I say, that's not only in China, that's in many, many countries around the world.
REHMYou know, I was trying to envision, Barry, exactly how this looks when the dredgers go in, and I understand that you can dredge some 10 million cubic yards of sand at one time, and that's enough to fill a million dump trucks. Is that accurate?
HOLLIDAYThat's pretty close.
HOLLIDAYYou can actually look at it one other way, is if you filled up a football field three feet high, it would be 1,875 football fields is 10 million cubic yards. I did that computation just the other day.
REHMAnd you do that with one dredge?
HOLLIDAYWell actually to dredge 10 million cubic yards with the environmental constraints and the weather and everything else, it probably takes about two years to actually finish the job. You have the concerns about bathers on the beach, and we certainly are very concerned about that. You have turtle issues that we have to be concerned about sometimes. So some of these jobs, they can start for a while, and then they have to stop, and then they come back and finish it. So usually on a job that that's big, and there are not many that big, it'll take a couple of years to actually complete.
REHMSo it'll take a couple of years to actually complete, but, you know, I find myself, Vince, wondering what -- how do you get to the bottom? How do you keep dredging and dredging and dredging, obviously in different places, without affecting the very substance of the Earth?
BEISERWell, I mean, at the end of the day, Diane, yeah, I agree with you, you can't. You know, there's -- there's just no way you can keep taking this amount of stuff out of the Earth without it having a big impact, and that's -- I think that's a real worry. Right now we're using something like 48 billion tons of sand and gravel every year, and now sand is -- there's a lot of sand in the world, but at the end of the day, there's only so much of it. And sooner or later we're going to run out.
REHMOkay, so David Roche, you've been talking about regulations here in this country. Other countries like China clearly don't operate under the same kinds of restrictions that we do here, and yet they just keep on keeping on.
ROCHEYeah, when you go to the international sphere, these legal frameworks are just untested and often unenforced. So what -- when Vince is talking about this massive human cost, what he's getting at is that the legal -- the rule of law isn't strong enough to enforce laws that are on the books. I mean, in almost none of these countries would a sand mafia have a place in -- a legitimate place at the table. But there's no one there and no capacity there to enforce it.
ROCHESo it becomes this -- internationally it's a tragic issue. It's -- it goes beyond environmental concerns and gets much more to human rights concerns. And Vince tells some harrowing stories about that. But, you know, to confront that, maybe we -- it's not that we need people to go out and, you know, like policemen necessarily to go out, what we need is courtrooms that can prosecute these things, and that's really difficult to get in a lot of these countries where, you know, the will isn't there and also just the capacity isn't there.
REHMDavid Roche, he's an attorney with the Environmental Law Institute. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And we've got numerous callers. Let's go to the phones now, first to Jean (PH) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. You're on the air.
JEANOkay, thank you. My husband was a civil engineer and work on designing the New Jersey Turnpike, and his company developed something called sand drains, where they took from Jamaica Bay, Long Island, and then they pumped it into these -- I guess they drilled down, and they pumped it into these sections to displace the water because otherwise they couldn't make a stable road bed. Had you heard of that?
REHMBarry, do you know about that?
HOLLIDAYYes, there are lots of applications where sand is actually very beneficial for protecting both highways, as well as many other beneficial uses like airports. Many airports are nothing but dredge material. The whole city of Washington, D.C., was reclaimed with dredge material. So certainly there are lots of opportunities like that.
REHMVince you must be concerned about the accumulating uses of sand, not only here in this country but around the world. Tell us some of what you've discovered in the process of your reporting.
BEISERWell, I think -- I mean, you know, of course Barry is absolutely right. I mean, we -- sand is incredibly useful. That's why we use so much of it. And we really, we depend on it in so many ways. I mean there's -- as you said, it's not only -- not only are buildings and roads made out of it and beaches made out of it, but actual land. I mean, there's whole swaths of the New York -- of Manhattan's riverfront that are made of reclaimed land, big areas of Singapore. I mean, all over the world there's artificial land that's been created from sand, which is great in some ways, but, I mean, that, too, you know, has some really serious downsides.
BEISERI mean, a lot of folks have seen these crazy artificial islands that they've built in Dubai, you know, these big islands in the shape of palm trees and stuff. That's all sand. That's all sand that's been dug up off the bottom of the ocean and just dumped in place. And I guess my big concern is that people -- there's so much of it, there seems to be so much of it that there isn't the same sense that there is about other natural resources that we need to sort of take care of it.
BEISERI mean, if you think about it, like 100...
REHMI'm wondering whether sand replenishes.
BEISERIt does. So there's more sand being made all the time. I think it was Geoffrey mentioned at the beginning that basically sand is basically broken-down mountains. It's tiny little pieces of mountains that get eroded by the wind and by the rain and then carried down from rivers. So there is more sand being made all the time but much, much less than we're using. In other words, we're using it up much faster than it's being created.
BEISERAnd the thing is, I mean, if you think about, you know, 100 years ago how we thought about forests or how we thought about oil, it just seemed like there is so much of this stuff, we never need to worry about it, we're never going to run out. And I feel like that's very much where we're at with sand right now.
REHMAll right we've got to take a short break here. David Roche, I know you want to get in on that. When we come back, I'll come back to you. And we've got lots of callers as we talk about sand mining around the globe. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. David Roche, just before the break, I know you wanted to jump in. Go right ahead.
ROCHESo to build off what's been talked about earlier, I think the really important thing to emphasize is this is only gonna become a bigger and bigger issue over the coming decades and even centuries. I mean, this is gonna be just massive. So we're always gonna have a need for concrete. We're always gonna be building things. That matters a lot. But what we haven't talked about yet is climate change and sea level rise.
ROCHESo sure everyone watched the Olympic opening ceremonies the other day. They had this entire graphic in there about sea level rise, where they showed an inundation happening all over the globe. But, in reality, that's not actually gonna happen exactly as it says. It's not like the sea level rise is one foot, so everything that's one foot will get inundated. We're gonna try to push back against that. We're not gonna just give up our coasts. So when you do that there's three different strategies you can take.
ROCHEOne, you can armor the coast, put up walls, sea walls, that sort of thing. And we'll do that, but that's not that effective long term. Two, you can retreat in, just get away from the coast. Eventually, that's gonna have to happen, but we're not gonna give up right away. The third is strengthen and that's sand. We're gonna use sand to rebuild barrier islands and marshes and things like that. And it's happening on a massive scale that people don't realize, already.
ROCHESo a good example is in Louisiana right now. They have this epic, ambitious 50-year plan, $50 billion, possibly even more, to rebuild their coastline through barrier islands, all involving lots and lots of sand. So you're getting sea level rise, fighting all these different issues. And, you know, we have to do something about it. I mean, even environmentalists say we can't give up our coasts. It's too much of a human cost. So that's where it comes in. We have to try to think about all these issues, the uncertainty issues and confront them in a way that helps the people and the environment without too many costs.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Heather in Jacksonville, Fla. You're on the air.
HEATHERHi. I'd like to know if anyone is developing an alternate solution for the use of concrete for construction of infrastructure. An alternate for sand and something that would not further impact our environment in a negative way. And secondly, I'd like to ask what happens when the mountains disappear?
REHMInteresting questions. Vince Beiser?
BEISERYeah, really good question. In short, yeah, there are a lot of people who are working on, you know, finding alternatives to concrete or making concrete a little more environmentally friendly. One of the really big issues about concrete is that it's a huge greenhouse gas emitter. Manufacturing cement produces somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of all the greenhouse gasses on Earth. So a lot of folks are concerned about that.
BEISERAnd there, you know, there are people working on, you know, you can replace sand for some applications with different things, like what they call fly ash, which is basically the stuff that's left over after you burn coal in a coal-fired power plant, you know, coming up with concretes that use less sand or artificial sand. And I think all those things, you know, there's some help that can come from that. But at the end of the day, it's really kind of an issue of just raw mass.
BEISERI mean, like I said, we use 48 billion tons of sand and gravel every single year. And there's just -- what else on the planet do we have 48 billion tons of to use every year? I think that's the real problem, is at the end of the day you can make it a little more environmentally friendly, you can cut down somewhat on the use of sand, but at the end of the day you need something to build those walls and to build those roads and to build those dams and sand is it.
REHMNow, Barry Holiday, we have an email from Jerry in Indianapolis, who says, "The more sand that is used in a concrete mix, the weaker the end product. And that should be the main concern." What are your thoughts?
HOLLIDAYWell, I'm not a concrete person, but I think he's probably correct in that regard, as far as the proportions of sand to the concrete. And I think, as Vince indicated, there's a lot of research that's looking at opportunities for using either less sand and improving concrete over time with other ancillary products, but there's -- I think there's still a long ways to go in that regard.
REHMHere's an email from Tony, in Grand Rapids, Mich. "What is the impact on the Great Lakes? Is sand being mined from the lakes?" Geoffrey?
WIKELWell, that's outside of BOEM's specific area of interest, but dredging does occur in the rivers that drain into the Great Lakes. There's an interesting story there. Some of the dredging that does occur, the material is beneficially used in shore protection and shoreline erosion projects along the coastline there in Michigan and Ohio.
REHMAll right. And a caller who couldn't stay on, "Please discuss the hazardous of living next to a sand mine, especially the effects of silica dust. Also, the mine is effecting groundwater levels in the area." Vince?
BEISERYeah, so this is a big concern in places like western Wisconsin, where I said there's been a big -- there's been a boom in frack sand mining. Digging up for this particular kind of sand that they use in fracking. And there are a lot of folks who are concerned that it will impact the groundwater in the area and that dust from the sand will go airborne. Sand is silica, most sand is silica. And particularly frack sand is really pure -- very high purity silica sand.
BEISERSilica dust can cause silicosis, which is a really serious disease. It's been, you know, very well known in the mining industry for decades. It kills a lot of people every year. So a lot of folks in western Wisconsin are really worried that these -- that the dust from these frack sand mining, silica dust, that there'll be enough of it in the air that it can cause silicosis and just by living next to one of these things you might be inhaling enough dust to kill you.
BEISERSo there is -- there's been a lot of, you know, contention around that in western Wisconsin. So far that I've seen, they haven't -- as far as all the tests that have been done, it looks to be safe. The silicosis angle looks to be pretty safe. The issue of whether or not the groundwater is polluting is a lot -- it's still kind of an open question. It obviously varies from mine to mine, but there's definitely a risk there.
REHMBarry, how do you see it?
HOLLIDAYWell, we're the good guys, 'cause we're pumping wet sand. So fortunately on the dredging operations, those are in the wet. And so the placement of the sand on the beaches and so forth is definitely not a contributor to airborne sands. So…
HOLLIDAY…usually it's coarse enough that it's also not gonna be an issue there.
REHM…what about that issue of groundwater, as well, Geoffrey?
WIKELGenerally, in the ocean environment that's not a great concern. That's more of a concern on land and in the headwaters of rivers.
REHMDavid Roche, do you want to comment?
ROCHEOh, yeah, I mean, basically when we're talking about frack sand and that sort of thing, what you're getting at is a lot of the same impacts that you get from fracking itself. You know, it's a mining process. A little bit different than the dredging and the ocean mining that we were talking about earlier. This is, you know, you're digging down, you're getting into groundwater, you're putting off a lot of dust, you're doing things like that.
ROCHESo, you know, there's a lot of push right now to get a better regulatory structure around it, similar to how there's a lot of push to get around fracking where everyone wants to regulate fracking. A lot of people outside of Wisconsin and Illinois and the northern Midwest, aren't thinking about it. So there needs to be a bigger push to put -- view sand mining in conjunction with fracking and actually regulate those together and really consider both when we're thinking about how to govern these things.
REHMInteresting. Geoffrey, have you ever rejected a project for dredging?
WIKELThat's an interesting question. So BOEM has not specifically rejected a project for dredging. But in state waters there have been instances of that where the Army Corps of Engineers have rejected a project. I can think of one off the coast of New England where there was some concerns about some sensitive fish habitat. And equivalent measures have been taken by state agencies who may permit these projects in state waters.
WIKELBOEM, are our statute is pretty interesting. It encourages us to negotiate agreements with potential users and stakeholders that are affected by that process. So while we haven't outright rejected a use, we have avoided areas that were environmentally sensitive and no project goes unmitigated. Every project -- and Barry can probably talk a little bit more detail about this -- is heavily mitigated. And there are some significant costs that go along with these mitigations.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Amelia in Ann Arbor, Mich. You're on the air.
AMELIAHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
AMELIAI had a question for panelists about especially the underwater dredging releasing chemicals or heavy metals that are in the sediments that have been laid down by industry or whatever over the years and how much of a danger that poses or a concern for regulators.
BEISERThat's a good question. That's a new one on me. I defer to Barry and Geoffrey on that one.
HOLLIDAYI'll be glad to answer that question.
HOLLIDAYFortunately, sand is not conducive to encapsulating contaminants. Usually sand is a clean sediment and it would be most unusual to find the heavy metals and other things. Those are usually in silts and muds and so I feel pretty comfortable that sand on a beach is pretty clean stuff.
REHMAnd tell us, David, I gather you're involved in the coastal restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. What's going on there?
ROCHESo this is another thing a lot of people don't think about, but it's all tied together. So after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which feels like it was ancient times now, but it's really -- the money from that, from BP is just coming down. So after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, around $20 billion is going to coastal restoration in the five Gulf States. And a lot of those projects, probably around half, but I'm not exactly sure, are gonna be rebuilding beaches, building barrier islands, doing living shorelines, beach nourishment, things like that.
ROCHEThis is creating a massive demand for sand. And, you know, so on one side you have the amount of money going into projects, which is billions of dollars. And then on then on the other side you have the possible benefits from this, which is saving coastal communities. And that's way more, it snowballs. So when you're getting to the question of whether a permit has ever been rejected, this is a -- this has so many billions of dollars in it, that you're getting to almost more of an economic than an environmental question and when they're weighing the cost benefit analysis.
ROCHEAnd so it raises a lot of concerns. When you're thinking about it from an environmental point of view that, you know, a species that lives on the coast, a mouse species or something that we've decided to a society really does matter, it might get overwhelmed in the cost benefit analysis by, you know, how much benefit is possible from beach nourishment. And so places like Louisiana are rebuilding and that's essential. But maybe there's more of a need to simultaneously think a lot about these environmental issues and figure out a way to view them all together so that we're not overwhelmed by considering every beach mouse and everything that we have to face. It's a huge issue.
REHMDavid Roche, he's an attorney with the Environmental Law Institute. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Vince, I know that environmentalists in California say that dredging in the San Francisco Bay is causing erosion of nearby beaches. So how do you get around that? And what is that dredging, in the Bay, going for?
BEISERSo the dredging in the Bay is going for construction. It's construction sand. It's actually been going on for a long time. But I think, again, you know, it's only pretty recently that folks have started to wake up and realize that this is having some really serious impact. And the impact that it seems to be having is basically what happens is sand gets brought into the Bay by rivers. Right, rivers carry that sand down from the mountains. They dump it in the Bay and eventually the currents take the sand out and kind of distribute it down along the coast, which is why you've got beaches further south along the coast.
BEISERWhat's happening now is they're taking out so much sand that there isn't -- like, no sand is coming out. Exactly. So those beaches that are -- those coastal beaches are just getting eroded and no new sand is coming in to replace them. So, I mean, if you just want to talk about that specific issue, I feel like that one's, I mean, you know, the obvious solution is stop dredging San Francisco Bay. That'll make life harder for building contractors and stuff in the area, but I think you can, I mean, that specific isolated issue you can deal with.
BEISERBut I think David's absolutely right. It's really -- we've got to think about this in a larger way than just looking at how can we deal with this problem here, that specific problem there. It's really a systemic issue. It's really something we need to think about in a much broader way.
REHMGo ahead, Geoffrey.
WIKELIn a place like the Gulf of Mexico, there are promising signs. There's a Gulf of Mexico alliance that is strategically looking at some of these issues, developing a long-term strategy for managing sand on a regional basis. Something that BOEM does to help for these long-term horizon policy issues is part -- is understanding where the sand is.
WIKELAnd so part of what BOEM does is we go out there and we investigate where the sand is, map where the sand is 'cause ultimately you need to know where the resource is and ultimately where it's going to be used. And then we, you know, can invest in a prudent environmental management strategy around where the resources are and where they could be used.
REHMBut if you've got environmentalists in California saying that dredging of the San Francisco Bay is causing erosion of nearby beaches, what do you do? Do you say you can no longer do this because it's causing too much environmental damage? What do you do?
WIKELSure. Well, in the case of what we do, where we're dredging it's sort of disconnected from the modern or active coastal sediment transport system or cell. So we're further off shore. What's unique about BOEM's mission is we're generally bringing sand in from outside of the active system and supplementing it. Where -- Vince was talking about creating deficits in a system. We're trying to create surplus and supplement the system, such that chronic problems with shoreline erosion or wetlands loss are abated.
REHMVince, you've brought this to light with your articles, your appearances. Do you think things are going to change or are we going to reach a crisis point before people wake up to what could be a major problem?
BEISERWow, that's a good question. I hope so. I mean, I feel like there's definitely more attention that's coming to the problem. I mean, you know, look at the -- this show that you're doing right here. There's more groups like the Environmental Law Institute that are getting involved in it. It's still something I'm constantly shocked by how little attention it gets from the really big environmental groups around the world. I mean, we're…
REHMWell, we hope that with this program it will indeed attract more attention. Vince Beiser, Barry Holiday, Geoffrey Wikel and David Roche, thank you all so much. And thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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