Investigators: Silica Sand

Investigators: Silica Sand

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If you use natural gas to heat your home, you can thank silica sand for helping to greatly reduce the cost of supplies -- and for the oil boom in America, because that sand is used to help blast oil from shale in places like North Dakota as part of a process called fracking.

However, the sand has created a swirling sandstorm of controversy. Since much of the precious sand is located in Minnesota and Wisconsin, local residents fear that mining to get at the sand could tear up local landscapes.

Silica sand is harvested through open pit and underground mining, and it's not new to Minnesota. According to the local Society of Mining Metallurgy and Exploration, the sand has been used for decades in glass making, toothpaste and even Asian noodles. What is new is the dramatic increase for the demand of the sand thanks to the domestic oil boom.

The sand grains are unique and special to fracking. If you magnified them, you could see them as well-rounded, crush-resistant and uniform. That insures that when the sand is injected into the man-made cracks in dense rock, the individual grains hold those spaces open in order to allow room for the oil and gas to flow from deep inside the Earth.

But here's the rub -- the same geological forces that tend to cause silica sand to accumulate underground in Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Iowa have also created scenic landforms atop that sand.

In other words, mines seem to pop up in the prettiest places.

Hay creek is an example. It is located south of Red Wing, Minn. A mining company recently bought land above Highway 58, which splits two bluffs that are rich in silica sand. No permits have been applied for with Goodhue County yet -- though that may have more to do with the county-wide moratorium on sand mining until next fall.

John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, says mining on the bluffs could disturb one of the best wild trout fisheries close to the Twin Cities. He says the sand mining process involves a high water demand that could dry up Hay Creek.

"What makes this part of the state that has excellent trout fishing, getting national acclaim now? It is the ground water, which is constantly cold," said Lenczenwsi.

He also fears runoff from the hill could pollute the stream with chemicals or sediments.

Just a stone's throw from the bluffs is Dressen's Saloon and Campground. Owner Pat O'Neill fears, noise, heavy truck traffic and the commotion that comes with a sand mine, saying it could chase away his business.

Nearby homeowners like Keith Fossen suspect the blasting and a 300-foot high washing towers would disrupt his neighborhood peace and quiet.

All of these fears don't just come from nowhere. They come from watching what has happened just across the river in Wisconsin. There, the number of mines has doubled in the past year. Now, the number is near 85 across the region.

Ken Schmidt is a farmer and former Chippewa County Board Member. He lives right in the middle of Wisconsin's sand country. His farm is surrounded by eight sand mines. All of them are within a couple of miles of his home. His daily realities include:

Endless convoys of trucks loaded with sand

Natural hills around his home being taken down

Silica sand dust.

He, along with others, wonder how much of it area residents can breathe safely. There are documented cases of workers at sand processing operations who have developed Silicosis, a type of lung disease; however, research on how it affects people who do not work in the industry is scarce.

While Schmidt knows the industry brings jobs and economic development, he fears there are hidden costs that won't be seen for years.

According to records obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators, the Wisconsin DNR has investigated two serious violations at sand mines so far:

Sediment discharged into a wetland area

A pile of waste sand slid down a hill and damaged an Amish farm.

There have also been complaints around water holding ponds, fugitive dust on roads, clean air violations at plants and abandoned bore holes left behind by people scoping out new places to mine. The bore holes are about 4 inches wide and can be several feet deep.

Minnesota's taking it slow so far. There are at least six silica sand mines in Minnesota already. With sand companies now snapping up land all over the southern of the state, five counties have passed moratoriums for at least the next 9 months while they figure out if there's a way to let them operate without too much harm.

The manager of one Minnesota silica sand mine says they have been doing just that since May of 2010. Brian O'Connor, of Preferred Sands of Minnesota , helps operate the mine, which sits just east of Woodbury and south of Highway 94.

Preferred Sands management allowed FOX 9 cameras into the mine so they could address concerns of the industry's critics. The place looks like something from a desert --sand everywhere and piled up high. At its peak, the plant brought 60 jobs to the area. Now, there are 51 employee, and O'Connor says they all care for the environment, describing 90 percent of them as outdoors people.

Sand inside the mine and piled sand doesn't blow around because workers saturate the sand with water, and they recycle the water used in the process. While there was some blowing sand near the area where they separate the different grains of sand, workers wore masks near it. The 100 to 150 trucks that roll out of the plant with loads of sand each day are covered with tarps to keep fugitive sand from blowing around. The sand goes straight to a rail yard in St. Paul. From there, it is sent all over the country.

The company says they do what they can to keep the noise down and to keep the light from bothering their neighbors. The plant manager said they only had two complaints this summer and that was from campers at a campground across the road from the plant. O'Conner said they addressed the complaints quickly and he believes his neighbors are satisfied.

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