Frac sand mine mishap turns a river orange

As the debate over water quality vs. mining rages in the northern part of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the southern part of the region is providing a good lesson in pollution: You never know what’s going to cause it.

The owners of the Hi-Crush mine in Whitehall, Wis., a frac sand mine, appear to have met all the regulations when constructing a holding pond for sludge and chemicals to keep them out of the Trempeauleau River.

But here’s what those protections didn’t anticipate: a bulldozer and its driver sliding into the retention pond.

Robbie Gunderson and his vehicle were completely submerged in the pond. An air-tight cab kept him from drowning. For more than two hours, rescuers tried to get to him but all the efforts failed. So they decided to breach the dike and let the sludge and chemicals flow into the river it was designed to protect.

It turned the Trempealeau River orange.

It was a decision that had to be made, of course, but it has fanned the debate over environmental damage caused by frac sand mines even when steps are taken to prevent it.

“That stuff isn’t mud,” Angela Sylla, who lives across the street from the mine, tells the La Crosse Tribune. “They’re washing sand. That’s full of chemicals.”

She’s taken water samples from the pond in the past and sent them to water testing companies while disputing the mine owners’ assertion that there’s nothing harmful coming out of the mine.

The paper says officials don’t know yet what they’re dealing with.

Roger Haro, a professor of biology in the River Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said a sediment plume can smother animals and plants that live on the river bottom, which in turn uses up oxygen in the water.

The spill had reached Dodge by noon Wednesday and was heading toward the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, where the Trempealeau River flows into the Mississippi River.

Sabrina Chandler, manager of the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, said the Fish and Wildlife Service was still working to figure out the potential impact.

“Any time something foreign, chemicals get into the river it’s a concern,” Chandler said. “At this point we don’t know what the implications may be.”

That environmental officials don’t know what’s in the water that’s heading for the Mississippi River reveals a flaw in the protections. Why don’t they know?

  • MrE85

    “That environmental officials don’t know what’s in the water that’s heading for the Mississippi River reveals a flaw in the protections. Why don’t they know?”

    “Why don’t they know?” is the news headline I would like to see soon regarding this story. It would be nice if that happened.

    • Wisconsin, apparently, has a “relaxed monitoring” programing for mine operators who are on some sort of “green ” list — the standards for which I’m an not informed on. Anyway, this company was on the list.

      • BJ

        Maybe this is just an ode to the making of america great, again?

        Cuyahoga River forever!

      • X.A. Smith

        Maybe they’ve donated enough “green” to the politicians.

      • NG

        Reminds me of another story I heard on MPR about the head of the Wisconsin DNR being appointed to the post of regional director for the EPA.

        “Meet Cathy Stepp, the EPA leader now overseeing Minnesota and making environmentalists nervous”

  • John

    So, what could it be? What “chemicals” are involved? (Everything, including sand and water, is chemicals, so that’s a rather vague description in my mind).

    I’m reasonably sure that the mine should have a list of every chemical they purchase/use to do their mining. That would be a good place to start in figuring out what ended up in the river. (Personally, I’d start with anything that is purchased in containers larger than 55 gallon drums and applied directly to the sand/rock that they’re mining).

    • Jim in RF

      Not in WI (and many other places). It’s treated as a proprietary secret.

      In MN, farmers do not have to tell a neighbor who asks what was sprayed on fields and likely on the neighbors fields and yards.

      Everywhere, thanks to (Richard) Cheney, fracers do not have to tell what chems they inject into the wells and therefore the groundwater for hydraulic fracing.

      It’s an upside-down world.

      • John

        Well . . .seems like a spill is an opportunity for the legislature to push through an exception to the proprietary secret in the event of a discharge into public waterways .

        Greater good and all that.

        (seems unlikely)

        • Bridget L.

          You would think, but good luck doing that in Wisconsin, especially. Like you said, unlikely.

          • Tell them it will contaminate their beer and watch the sparks fly!

      • Ben Chorn

        This is incorrect. You can find what is used in fracking from multiple websites.

        This one is good, and you can look up what was used in specific wells:

        Haliburton even has information, including data sheets:

        They have to mention what chemicals they use- the proprietary comes from the mixtures and amounts they use.

  • MrE85

    Unfortunately, these sort of problems are not confined to Wisconsin.

    • Barton

      and of course, thanks to this, they’ll be all the way to the Gulf soon…

  • jon

    Bulldozers have air tight cabs?

    How far up the mississippi are the invasive carp…. any chance that poisoning the river will chase them back down stream? as a silver lining to killing off other things in the river (who knows what that might or might not be…)

    • …that’s the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.

  • Jim in RF

    Very related, how MN (doesn’t) confront water issues. Big Ag’s short-term priorities always trump citizens’ health:

  • A-man

    In the same way that Scott Walker’s “Open for Business” signs were hastily added to the welcome signs at the border, regulation in Wisconsin gets the same treatment.

    • jon

      “open for business”
      “Temporarily closed due to unknown chemical spill.”

  • Barton

    Horrible, and really childish, response:

    Why don’t they dam the Trempealeau and keep all those nasty chemicals in Wisconsin’s waterway?

    • jon

      Because they just destroyed the bulldozer they would have needed to contain the spill…

  • 212944

    From the La Crosse Tribune article cited in the post:

    “The 1,447-acre Whitehall mine and processing site is one of four Wisconsin sites operated by Hi-Crush. The site reported eight worker injuries in 2017, a rate more than 10 times the national average, according to the MSHA data. The regulatory agency has cited Hi-Crush Whitehall 18 times since the facility opened in 2014, resulting in fines totaling $2,887.”

    This is the corporate version of … “Nobody could have known …. if only there were some warning signs.”

  • lindblomeagles

    We Americans just never learn. The minute dollar signs flash in the sky, we Americans totally forget about all the mishaps businesses cause. The BP Oil Spill just occurred 8 years ago (and like this mishap, everything was allegedly safe). The reality is businesses make hundreds of mistakes (more than governments do) on a daily basis throughout the world. We need to keep paying close attention on their activities because THERE ARE NO EXPERTS living among us. Every human thing enacted is prone to failure.

    • John

      I mostly agree with you, except there are lots of experts living among us. They do make mistakes though, just like non-experts. The expert typically makes a lot fewer though.