By Kate Prengaman
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
MINNEAPOLIS — As frac sand mines continue to pop up across the Upper Midwest, it is being met with increasing resistance from residents.
More than 50 people gathered to protest the practice outside a conference on the silica sand resources of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“This is total destruction,” said Kathleen Bibus of Red Wing, Minn. “We know the chemicals they use will contaminate the groundwater. We know the dust causes silicosis.”
Bibus lives near a proposed mine site. But her concerns about the health, safety, and environmental effects of the sudden boom in new industrial sand mining plants are shared by many. Sand mines are popping up across the region to meet an increased demand for the sand used in hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas.
A newly formed industry association, the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, wants to assure residents that sand mining can be done safely and responsibly. But Rich Budinger, the association’s president, acknowledges that sand miners haven’t done enough to answer community questions.
“I wish we were doing this two years ago,” Budinger said. “I think a big part of the problem is the misinformation.”
Budinger said the four founding companies — Fairmount Minerals, Badger Mining Corp., U.S. Silica, and Unimin — all have been producing industrial sand safely for decades. For other companies to join the association, they have to agree to a code of conduct that prioritizes environmental sustainability and safety.
In recent weeks, residents of Buffalo County convinced a county board to reject two frac sand plant proposals from Menomonie-based Glacier Sands LLC, one for processing and loading plants 1,200 feet from the Cochrane-Fountain City School.
Craig Brooks and Shirley Evans drove from Buffalo County to join the protest, carrying signs that celebrated those recent victories.
“People came from all over to speak out against the proposal. It was amazing,” Evans said. “This all started a year ago in July, but no trucks have rolled yet.”
Brooks said he is optimistic that the rejection of the processing and loading plants will disrupt plans for three other Glacier Sands mines in the county.
“We’ve got some momentum, but we’re worried about keeping it going,” Brooks said, adding that he expected that Glacier Sands would revise its proposal and reapply.
Many in Buffalo County protested the frac sand permit applications because of the increased traffic it would cause and the potential health effects of sand dust exposure. Long-term exposure to fine silica dust can cause an irreversible lung disease known as silicosis.
The health risk is one of the many concerns Budinger and other sand producers want to dispel.
The sand drying process can produce dust, but Budinger said that plants are built with dust-collection equipment and regularly assess workplace air quality. All the WISA members, he said, must have silicosis prevention plans.
“If we are managing dust within our operations to protect our employees, keeping levels well below the requirements, then we are protecting our neighbors as well,” Budinger said.
But protesters weren’t convinced by the industry assurances they’ve heard so far. Many, such as Mary Kaye Perrin of Winona, Minn., are concerned that frac sand mining will hurt tourism and damage the land they love.
“For me, once a bluff is gone, it’s gone,” Perrin said. “It’s not a thing that you can bring back.”