Our ravenous appetite turns humble sand into an endangered natural treasure

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Perhaps you’ve seen the brilliant white sand dunes of New Mexico, visited the unique Sand Hills of Nebraska, or frolicked on one of our country’s beautiful sand beaches. But have you ever seen the Sand Mountains of Manhattan? Even Big Apple natives are largely unaware that such towering formations of nature exist in the midst of their city’s skyline. But there they are, mountains of sand hidden in plain view, existing literally inside each of New York’s massive skyscrapers.

The people who have benefited from all this, who have pocketed all this dirty money, [are] at the highest levels of government and [in] some of the companies–which are more like mafia cartels.” –ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ-DAVIDSON, founder of a gutsy environmental group, Mother Nature, that is fighting global sand profiteers
Little known fact: Practically every skyscraper in every one of the world’s cities is essentially made of sand–as are nearly all shopping malls, condo complexes, office towers, parking garages, airport terminals, dams, and other large structures. America builds with concrete–gabillions of tons of it–and concrete is nothing but sand mixed with a bit of gravel and water, bound together with cement and a few other ingredients, and allowed to harden. In addition, every glass window in those structures is made of melted sand. There’s also the vast network of urban transportation routes we navigate to reach each of those buildings–the millions of miles of highways, tunnels, streets, subways, sidewalks, and airport runways–all made mostly of concrete or asphalt–all comprised mostly of sand.

Every urban-suburban-industrial megaplex worldwide is built of sand. Nearly 4 billion people (more than half of Earth’s population) are now concentrated in sprawling metro areas –nearly quintuple the number in 1950. The pace of urbanization is increasing exponentially, especially in such massively populated countries as China, India, and Indonesia. And as evermore people migrate to cities, sand follows. In just four years, from 2012 to 2016, China consumed more sand for construction than the US did between 1900 and 2000.

Cartoon by Brian Duffy

Additional mountains of sand are poured into constructing millions of homes. “A typical American house requires more than a hundred tons of sand, gravel, and crushed stone for the foundation, basement, garage, and driveway, and more than 200 tons if you include its share of the street that runs in front of it,” environmental writer David Owen reported this May in The New Yorker magazine.

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But wait, as they say on late-night TV infomercials, “There’s more!” Two other huge sand hogs are loose on the planet and devouring ever-increasing volumes of this resource:

BEACHES. Hauling sand to beaches seems somewhere between ironic and insane, but sandy shores are not immutable. Wind and water constantly shift and erode them, and a big storm can decimate a whole stretch of beach. Nature happens. But an unnatural force has now become a major shaper of shorelines: Money. Rich people and corporate developers have thickly planted multimillion-dollar McMansions, condos, and resorts right up to or even on many sandy beaches, and when “their” sand moves or disappears, the owners demand that state and national governments replace it. So compliant politicos worldwide spend mountains of taxpayer dollars to dredge ocean floors or scoop up inland sands for beach replacement.

FRACKING. Big Oil & Gas have become voracious users of sand to fracture, aka frack, deep, underground shale deposits so the fuel trapped in those rock formations can escape and be pumped to the surface. The bigger the wells, the more sand the frackers fire at the shale. Giants like ExxonMobil and Halliburton are now drilling megawells nearly two miles deep, with each well blasting some 10 million pounds of sand into the rock below. How much sand is that? The Wall Street Journal reports that it would take two mile-long trains of 100 boxcars each to deliver that 10 million pounds. That’s for fracking a single megawell, and there are hundreds of them across the country. The volume of sand needed per well has tripled in the last five years and continues to increase by about 30 percent a year. Chesapeake Energy Corp. set a new record in 2016 by powering 50 million pounds of fracking sand into one Louisiana megawell. A Houston energy investment bank predicts America will use 120 million tons of fracking sand by next year–double the volume of 2014.

The crisis you never heard about

We humans are using more sand today than any other natural resource besides water. Another little-known fact: We are running out of usable sand.

“Huh?” you might ask in disbelief. The planet has vast deserts spreading at alarming rates, and the climate-change forecasts say more and quicker desertification is coming at us. But the key adjective is “usable,” and desert sand grains are too small and rounded to make concrete or asphalt. As Owen reported, the rich, fast-growing city of Dubai sits on the enormous Arabian Desert, yet when its royal family built the world’s tallest building, it had to import sand from Australia! Even Dubai’s golf courses can’t fill their sand traps with the material the courses are built on, because golf balls would sink and disappear. Instead, they haul sand from as far away as North Carolina … to a desert.

The little guys can win!

IT’S NOT WHAT TOURISTS WOULD EXPECT to see as they come over the dunes for a day of beachcombing in the spectacular beauty of California’s Monterey Bay. But there it is, squatting right on the people’s beach: a hulking steel ship, sucking up sand from an eight-acre dredge pond. Adding to the charm is a huge pipeline pumping plundered sand a quarter mile across the beach and over the dunes to a factory, where the “product” is washed, graded, dried, and loaded onto dump trucks that haul it to a bagging facility.

Yes, it’s our public sand, taken by a private corporation, then sold back to us for the corporation’s profit. [read more]

What is sand, anyway? The great bulk is rock, mostly quartz, that forces of nature (sun, ice, wind, water) ever so gradually grind, over thousands of years, into fine grains. While nature does constantly create more, it can’t keep up with the rapacious extraction by industries, governments, and our world’s teeming population. As detailed in a 2014 United Nations report, the non-stop global taking of sand “greatly exceeds natural renewal rates … [and] the current level of political concern clearly does not match the urgency of the situation.” What practically everyone has long assumed was an inexhaustible, inexpensive, and invaluable gift from nature has suddenly turned up on Earth’s endangered list.

Not to be flippant, but the global rush to grab every last speck of sand is no day at the beach. With billions of dollars at stake, a large range of players–from legit operators to grab-it-and-go mobsters–is vying for a cut of the profits. While many of the sand peddlers make some effort to minimize the inherent damages, many more don’t care what their planetary plundering is doing to nature, communities, local economies, drinking water, public trust, social justice … and human lives.

Thus, whether the operators are multinational corporate elites or black-market outlaw gangs, much of the global sand trade is corrupt, careless, and barely monitored, much less regulated. So the humble commodity itself is being crudely dredged, scraped, bulldozed, pumped, clawed, stripped, and otherwise ripped from Mother Earth. The general attitude of the shadowy extraction industry is that if brute force isn’t working, you’re probably not using enough of it.

A China odyssey

The Yangtze River is the water source for 24 million people in Shanghai, China’s burgeoning financial center. In the past two decades, a population explosion that has added seven million new residents has been accompanied by a building boom: In just the past 10 years, more gleaming skyscrapers have been erected in Shanghai than there are in all of New York City, along with millions of new homes, hotels, and other structures. To build them, so much sand has been taken from the Yangtze that, as investigative journalist Vince Beiser wrote for The Guardian, by the turn of the 21st century, the stripping of the river had become so severe “that bridges were undermined, shipping was snarled, and 1,000-foot swathes of river-bank collapsed.” Because of such recurring calamities, authorities banned all sand mining from the Yangtze in 2000.

Do something!

Learning how “the little guys” can win these important battles against sand profiteers will help us save not simply our American sand resources, but endangered places all around the globe. Read up on what courageous groups are doing to protect crucial natural resources.

Mother Nature Cambodia is fighting to put an end to the systematic destruction of Cambodia’s resources by powerful state and non-state actors. Check out mothernaturecambodia.org.

Closer to home, see how a coalition of Monterey, CA area citizens and nonprofits organized to stop CEMEX’s sand dredging at saveourshores.org/what-we-do/sand

Coming to a town near you? A rigorous report on the health and environmental costs of sand mining, Communities At Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest, details large-scale extraction in WI and MN. But faced with a limited resource and increased demand, the sand industry is now looking at extraction in at least 12 other states: IL, ME, MA, MI, MO, NY, NC, SC, PA, TN, VT, and VA. thewheelerreport.com/wheeler_docs/files/0925csi.pdf.

But the menagerie of sand plunderers didn’t just disappear. They flocked 300 miles west to Poyang, China’s largest freshwater lake, where they proceeded to develop the biggest sand mine on Planet Earth. Poyang Lake had been a picturesque, gentle place surrounded by rolling hills and dotted with ramshackle fishing villages, the winter home of millions of cranes, geese, storks, and several rare and endangered species.

In the past decade, however, Poyang has been transformed into an industrial nightmare. Beiser describes “a flotilla anchored just offshore of colossal dredges and barges, hulking metal flatboats with industrial cranes jutting from their decks. …Hundreds of dredgers, some the size of tipped-over apartment buildings, can be seen be on the lake on any given day. The biggest can haul in as much as 10,000 tons of sand an hour.” Day after day, gargantuan transport ships take the sand from Poyang Lake, down the Yangtze, to Shanghai, where it is converted to concrete, asphalt, glass … and big profits for developers and bankers.

Meanwhile, back at the lake, Poyang’s water level and quality have dropped dramatically. The constant dredging clouds the water with sediment, while the noise and toxins produced by so many ships (which traverse the channel into lake at the rate of two a minute) are proving ruinous to Poyang’s wildlife, the area’s fishing families, and the once-vibrant tourist trade.

Sand dollars

The global sand grab mostly takes place out of public view–on remote islands, in isolated sections of lakes and rivers, in distant jungles and forests, and in backwater areas of subsistence farms and fishing villages. Rural and lower-income people, then, are primarily the ones who end up paying the devastating (and uncompensated) costs– economic, environmental, health, and aesthetic–of extraction.

That cost is particularly high on the southwestern coast of Cambodia in the watery province of Koh Kong, where dredging corporations have been stripping sand from the many rivers, estuaries, islands, and mangrove forests. This area had been a timeless, tranquil place where generation after generation lived in stilt houses protruding into the rivers and tidal pools, literally pulling a living from the aquatic abundance. But corporate marauders arrived in 2007 with their arsenal of heavy machinery, and they have now spent a decade scraping out unimaginable volumes of sand. Of course, an entire ecology is connected to that sand, so the dredgers have also been ripping out the roots of mangroves, polluting rivers, collapsing riverbanks, destroying shallows where crabs breed, and ruining fish habitat. As company barges have continuously taken away the sand, they’ve also taken away livelihoods and tranquility. Environmental and human rights journalist Rod Harbinson reported in June that many people forced out of fishing had little choice but to leave their villages and families to seek low-paying, oppressive jobs such as garment factory work in Phnom Penh.

Where did their sand go? Some 700 miles across the sea to Singapore, the tiny island nation just off the southern tip of Malaysia. Once an outpost of Britain’s infamous East India Company, Singapore is a prosperous finance center today as well as a tax haven for the world’s wealthy, an Asian base for more than 7,000 multinational corporations, and home to the world’s highest per capita percentage of millionaires.

The city-state’s skyline is framed by hundreds of sand-gobbling skyscrapers, but that is not why it has become by far the world’s biggest importer of this endangered resource. Rather, the island’s corporate and political elites have been expanding Singapore’s physical size by dumping sand into walled-off portions of the sea around it.

Since this totally urbanized island has little sand of its own, its moneyed powers have been deploying lawyers, flimflammers, and others to exploit the region’s poorer nations. The damage done to so many, simply to build up a few square miles of artificial territory for so few, is such an outrageous waste that three countries–Indonesia (where more than two dozen islands reportedly have been completely hauled away!), Malaysia, and Vietnam–have restricted or banned sand exports to Singapore.

Sands of time

No nation is immune from this pandemic of madness:

  • Farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin (which supply most of the trainloads of sand that Big Oil & Gas frackers fire into their megawells) are blaming the recent boom in sand mining for polluting their water and air.
  • Through the lush forests of the Indian state of Kerala, the Manimala River has flowed for centuries over sand beds, up to 30 feet deep, that have functioned as a permanent aquifer. Since 2002, however, a complex network that villagers dubbed the “sand mafia” has scooped up so much sand that the river is barely a trickle and, as Rollo Romig reported in The New York Times, the water table has dropped for miles around. With no sand to store the monsoon rains, the water whooshes away as quickly as it falls. Ordinary wells have run dry, so people have drilled deep tube wells, some of which are now also are failing. Water-thirsty rice paddies are long gone. And as loss of sand weakens their foundations, several major bridges face collapse.
  • In India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, and elsewhere, environmental activists, journalists, and defiant locals have been imprisoned and even murdered for standing in the way of the piles of “dirty money” exchanged in the dark business of extracting innumerable tons of tiny rock specks.

Common, seemingly abundant sand is not something that progressive politicians, media, or even the major environmental organizations have thought much about. Yet there is an urgent need for us to pay attention, for sand is an invaluable, finite, and fast-disappearing natural resource–an essential balancing force in Earth’s intricate ecology and a building block for all of humanity. At the very least, we can no longer afford to allow the world’s elites and profiteers to keep plundering this special gift from nature. “It once seemed as if the planet had such boundless supplies of oil, water, trees and land,” Vince Beiser wrote in The New York Times. Just as the world is learning to “conserve, reuse, find alternatives for, and generally get smarter about how we use those natural resources … we need to start thinking about sand.”

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