At the last Goodhue County planning commission meeting, there was some talk about the dangers of silica dust. The main question seemed to be, “How dangerous is this dust, really?” After some discussion, the answer was, “This isn’t our problem. Let someone else worry about it.”
Silica dust is a known carcinogen. It also causes a disease called silicosis.
A Red Wing woman, who lost her husband to this disease, describes how it killed him in this interview.
On Monday night, in a sweltering room at the Goodhue County Justice Center, the planning commission listened to the mining moratorium request. Eloquent speeches were made. Members of the public had their say. And the commissioners decided not to decide. Yet.
Among the 100+ people in the small room, opinion was solidly against the proposed frac sand mine.
No one from Windsor Permian came. They sent a letter, which was read by the county planner. We made a video, complete with our comments. After a few days, 100 views, and a little contemplation, we realized that this video might cast Mr. W., the planner, in a bad light. The video made him look like spokesman for Windsor. And, of course, he’s not.
Still, we felt a video was needed. Here’s what we came up with:
At Summerfest in Maiden Rock, WI, the annual sand mine tour is a big attraction. We paid $5 each and stood in line with a happy group of tourists and locals, waiting for one of two old flatbed diesel trucks that were shuttling tours into the mine.
Sparky, our tour guide, made it clear that photography during the tour was absolutely prohibited. (“Trade secrets”) We stayed on the trucks for the entire tour, moving slowly through the tunnels.
Of course, we took notes.
Here are a few fun facts:
There are 30-35 miles of tunnels, which go 3 miles back from the entrance.
Sand from the mine is not sold for sand blasting–there’s too much liability, due to silicosis.
Fairmount Minerals ships about 23 rail cars and 8-12 trucks of sand from Maiden Rock every day.
The company coats some of this sand with resin at other facilities–this makes it more valuable.
The mine employs 45 people.
The tunnels are 250-300 feet below the surface.
Tunnels are about 25 x 25 feet in cross section.
Blasting turns the sandstone into sand.
Sand is moved through the mine in poly pipes, as a slurry of 70% water, 30% sand.
The mine contains the 2nd largest bat population in Wisconsin.
Deer, fox, racoon and oppossums wander into the mine. The racoons and oppossums eat bats.
When the tour was over, we were left with the impression that this is a very big operation, and the people who work there are proud of it. After the extreme noise and overpowering odor of the diesel tour truck, we were happy to hop off and head over to the Smiling Pelican for coffee and muffins.
If you crush a lump of St. Peter sandstone in your hand, you won’t see much dust. Does that mean there is no dust, or is it just too fine to see? My wife and I collected some sandstone and brought it back to the studio to investigate, up close.
As I was transferring the sand from one container to another, it took me a minute to realize why I was coughing. No dust in sight. Later, against a black background,
in a bright light, the dust swirled and sparkled and hung in the air for a long, long time.
The sand itself is remarkably uniform, and very different from sandbox sand. My brother, who studied geology, tells me that this sand is ancient.
People who’ve seen frac sand mining up close always comment on the scale of the operation. Noise, dust, traffic– 24/7.
Maiden Rock, WI, which is just across the river from Red Wing, has an underground mine, which is a little unusual. One supposed advantage of this is that much of the mining activity is underground.
A week ago, by coincidence, I met the son of a retired couple who live next door to the Maiden Rock Mine. They own about 15 acres of forested land that runs up one side of a valley next to the sand processing plant and the shaft entrance. With their OK, I shouldered my camera and hiked up the hill to see what this mine looks like up close.