On Monday, nearly forty people blocked truck traffic from entering “Mount Frac”—the Winona, MN dumping site for silica sand mined in Wisconsin and Minnesota’s beautiful driftless region before being shipped out for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” sites all over the country. In the twenty or so minutes that protesters blocked the site, eleven semi-trucks were held up; it was stark and visceral reminder of how much the frac sand industry has grown since last summer. There were no arrests made, although police warned that any future attempt to block the trucks would result in citations and/or arrest.
The activists—a diverse group of students, scientists, teachers, musicians, parents, farmers and other concerned citizens—issued a statement declaring their opposition to frac sand mining and fracking:
We stand here today because this is our community. We grow our food on this land and drink from these aquifers. We rely on this bridge and these roads. Frac sand mining and processing are not good for our community. We also know that our valuable sand is being used in the hydraulic fracturing process which is responsible for poisoning water and destroying land in countless other communities. We have used our words time and again to express our many concerns. Now, in the spirit of nonviolence, we use our bodies to say stop. Please, stop.
This was the second time in less than a week where frac sand operations were disrupted. Last Thursday, a group of nine—mostly Catholic Workers—blocked truck traffic for more than twenty minutes before leaving the site without any citations or arrests.
Silica sand, formed by pieces of crystalline silica, is idealized by fracking companies for the drilling of natural gas because of its hardiness and shape. A well is drilled and millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into it. The sand can withstand intense amounts of pressure as natural gas escapes from the fissures that the sand holds open. There are a whole host of controversial issues surrounding fracking for natural gas as well as silica sand mining. Critics of fracking have noted that the liquid-injection mixtures are deadly compositions of unknown chemicals and carcinogens. Fracking companies have refused to disclose their “recipes” but aquifers, wells, and streams have been polluted at high rates around fracking sites in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Some waters have been poisoned so badly that homeowners can light their faucet taps on fire and are forced to truck in their water. And while there are no natural gas deposits in Wisconsin or Minnesota, where the silica sand is being mined in open pits, both processes have major physical and environmental health concerns.
Issues concerning the mining of frac sand were widely expressed at the Winona City Planning Commission meeting on Monday evening. The Planning Commission is set to give recommendations to the City Council for how to deal with sand processing and transportation facilities that are knocking on Winona’s door. The planning commission prepared a document recommending a conditional use permit but many Winonans felt it did not go far enough. Residents’ concerns included blasting with explosives in the mines, excessive water use, increased truck traffic and more than usual wear and tear on local infrastructure such as roads and bridges, dust pollution, and, most worrisome, health hazards due to environmental exposure to crystalline silica.
Andrew Puetz, General Manager at Chrysler Winona—whose new, two million dollar dealership was relocated to downtown Winona as part of an economic revitalization attempt—spoke about the “economic fallout” his company is experiencing as a result of increased frac sand operations and traffic: “The sand affects the paint, air filters, and underside of the cars. We are regularly asked by customers about what color our cars are and are spending $2,000 a month just to keep them clean. There are serious effects on the exterior of our vehicles [from the sand]; what is that doing to our lungs and everything else?”
Proponents of frac sand mining—in Winona, Wisconsin, and elsewhere—emphasize the important economic development opportunities that it offers to small communities. But who is really benefiting? And at what cost? Out-of-state corporations, like the Houston-based, Fortune 500 EOG Resources, has its hands in townships along the Mississippi River. The frac sand boom is dependent on another exploitative extractive industry and the Energy Information Administration has concluded that there is significantly less natural gas available in the United States than previously though—up to fifty percent less. Are rural communities being hoodwinked by what some state and corporate leaders have dubbed a “gold rush?” Frac sand mining does not seem to be wise long-term or sustainable economic development. The communities along the Mississippi, due to the glacial drift that also created the silica sand deposits, have some of the highest concentrations of organic agriculture and family farms in the country. Tourism also accounts for much of the region’s income with its preponderance of local and state parks for birding, hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and watersports. As a result local entrepreneurs—restaurateurs, artists, bar and cafe owners, specialty shops—also benefit. Frac sand mining and its related operations threatens the vitality of those industries by driving up the cost of rural real estate and contributing significant amounts of pollution, traffic, and blight. Yet the Winona Chamber of Commerce backs the frac sand industry over the broad economic interests of small business owners and the health and safety of the community.
Dr. Bruno Borsari, professor and biologist at Winona State University, called for a team of experts to be put together who could rigorously and objectively study the impacts of frac sand operations in town and assess the effects it would have on soil, air, water and health. “We are on the brink of collision with an impact upon the environment that is going to change the connotations of the county forever,” said Borsari, “and I am very disturbed because Winona County, whether you know it or not, is the most biodiverse county in the whole state of Minnesota.”
One thing is clear—the City of Winona is unprepared to deal with a powerful industry as well as a mobilizing citizenry. Last spring, frac sand mine owners and operators were able to sneak through plans without public input and with little oversight from regulatory agencies. Now, Winona is inundated with frac sand operations and the city has on its hands, in the words of Winonan Mike Leutgeb-Munson, “a public safety disaster that is perpetuated by the town laying out a welcome mat to industry to destroy our bridge and our town.” His sentiments were met with approving nods by most of the room. The fears of frac sand operations, largely confirmed by what has happened in other towns and counties, like Chippewa County, Wisconsin, are that the floodgates are opening and it is not going to be good for most businesses, homeowners, farmers, residents, and tourists.
“There are thousands of trucks in surrounding counties waiting to get in here” said Mary Ann from Buffalo County, WI—just across the river from Winona. “We need to mitigate the damage because this is just the beginning.” Winona is an attractive transfer point for the sand because of its location on the Mississippi River and its access to freight trains.
Many counties in Minnesota—including Goodhue and Wabasha County—have passed a one year moratorium to study the potential effects and costs of frac sand mining. Winona County passed a three month moratorium and when it expires it will have to face permit applications or extend the moratorium. But that does not resolve the issue of increased truck traffic, including the costs of additional road maintenance estimated to be more than $1 million annually or the dangers of heavy traffic in residential areas. And neither does it address the potential health hazards of silica sand. On both issues, the City of Winona has been slow in responding. The road issue may not seem like a big deal until you realize that in 2008 the bridge on Highway 43—connecting Wisconsin’s sand pits to Minnesota’s trains and roads—was closed because of rusting gusset plates (the same plates cited in the I-35W bridge collapse). Add the extra—and unregulated—heavy truck traffic weighing on the bridge and it creates legitimate concern for public safety.
The Winona protests come just a week after the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources denied a petition by residents seeking to have crystalline silica reviewed as a hazardous air contaminant. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has this to say about crystalline silica:
The seriousness of the health hazards associated with silica exposure is demonstrated by the fatalities and disabling illnesses that continue to occur in sandblasters and rockdrillers. Crystalline silica has been classified as a human lung carcinogen. Additionally, breathing crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis, which in severe cases can be disabling, or even fatal. The respirable silica dust enters the lungs and causes the formation of scar tissue, thus reducing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. There is no cure for silicosis. Since silicosis affects lung function, it makes one more susceptible to lung infections like tuberculosis. In addition, smoking causes lung damage and adds to the damage caused by breathing silica dust.
There are no conclusive studies regarding the health effects for the kind of exposure the public has to silica sand. The data on silicosis has been mainly linked to close-quarters exposure over an extended period of time. But research shows that the effects of silicosis, and other airborne illnesses, can take up to twenty years to appear. The risk itself—a risk they didn’t ask for—is what has Winonans up in arms. Alison DeNio, whose home is two blocks from Mount Frac, has already noticed the ill-effects the sand particulates have had on her family’s health. Her passion echoed how, she noted, many of her neighbors feel:
The respiratory issues in my household alone, since this thing has moved into the neighborhood, is out of control. My daughter has asthma now. My son is constantly coughing. I don’t want them to be outside. Even before we knew what this stuff was, we used to go running down that road. We can’t do any of that anymore with the amount of trucks coming through their now. The trucks are out of control. They go flying by us as we are sitting there on the side of the road on our bikes, waiting. It’s aggressive and a really awful environment.
Diane Leutgeb-Munson, who was a part of both truck-blocking actions, made a powerful appeal to the planning commission: “This is a crucial moment for our community and you do have power as an advisory commission. We are all looking to you. That’s why we came here. That’s why we’ve been showing up at city meetings and county meetings. We are asking you to do more than what this document says. These are scary moments for all of us. At the end of this meeting you get a choice and we are asking you to make the right one.” The planning commission tabled their recommendation for further study. While many of the “fracktivists” want frac sand mining gone completely, it is a victory for the emerging movement. It also sends a strong signal to the industry and to town and city governments that people are watching.
It may be coincidence, but at the beginning of the meeting, planning commissioner chair Craig Porter noted that they had never had so many people show up at a meeting. A much more likely explanation is the power people have when they get engaged, show up, and—when necessary—take direct actions. Of the more than forty citizens who packed into Winona City Hall, most of them proved their willingness to fight for what they believe in earlier that afternoon at Mount Frac. And that is a powerful testament to the efficacy of nonviolent action that corporate and government authorities take seriously.
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