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Tiny Minnesota City Draws a Line in the Frac Sand Boom

Winona will be the first U.S. city to monitor pollution from trucks hauling frac sand en route to fracking operations.

Nov 11, 2013
Demonstrators protest against the frac sand industry in Winona on April 29, 2013

A college town in southern Minnesota is taking action against the frac sand industry that's booming amid America's drilling revolution.

Winona, Minn. will become the first local government in the nation to monitor air pollution that may be escaping from mounds of sand being trucked through town for delivery to fracking fields in North Dakota and elsewhere.

The move puts the city of 28,000 people at the forefront of initial efforts to address the health effects of silica sand, an ingredient used in fracking that has been linked to lung disease. It is part of a larger trend to understand the various impacts of natural gas and oil development on communities.

The data Winona collects will be used to determine if the city is within pollution standards set by the federal and state government, and it could help other towns build a case for monitoring frac sand pollution.

"This is not a specific city's problem—it's a regional problem," said Jim Gurley, co-founder of the Winona-based grassroots group Citizens Against Silica Mining.

In the past few years, the U.S. frac sand industry has ballooned from a dozen or so mines to hundreds in order to support growing demand from frackers—which use 10,000 tons of silica sand to frack a single well. Much of the boom is in Wisconsin, the biggest producer of frac sand in the United States.

Winona, which is near the Wisconsin border and on the Mississippi River, has become a key transport corridor for shipping Wisconsin's frac sand to drilling sites.

Every day about 100 trucks carrying thousands of tons of sand move through U.S. Highway 43 that cuts across the city. The sand is loaded onto rail or barge and sent to North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Minnesota law requires tarps covering the haulers. But many residents remain worried about the potential impact of silica dust emissions and diesel exhaust.

The extent and effect of pollution from mining, processing and transporting frac sand is only partially understood. The biggest concern is the release of extra-tiny dust matter called PM 2.5, which are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and can penetrate lung tissue and enter the bloodstream. There are few monitoring tools at frac sand mines for PM 2.5 and none at transport hubs.

Silica dust exposure kills hundreds of industrial sand workers a year, according to federal data.

Holly Lenz, an assistant professor of public health at Winona State University who first proposed the monitors, said children, the elderly and people with chronic disease are most at risk from respiratory illness. "We've got the college students and a lot of older citizens," she said. "We want to make sure we are protecting" everyone.

Under Winona's plan, two air pollution sensors will be installed atop a YMCA next to the busiest road for frac sand truck traffic. One will measure concentrations of particulate matter measuring 4 micrometers in diameter, or PM 4. The other will measure the finer PM 2.5 particles.

Frank Kohlasch, manager of the air assessment section of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which will fund the monitors and collect and analyze the data, said he does not believe that dust blowing off frac sand trucks is "an imminent problem right now." The push for monitoring has faced little resistance from the frac sands industry.

The safety guideline for PM 2.5 set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and used by Minnesota is 12 micrograms per cubic meter over a one-year period. This summer, Minnesota adopted California's stringent standard for PM 4, which says the particle should remain below 3 micrograms per cubic meter.

The Winona City Council is slated to vote on a final proposal later this month. It is expected to win easy approval. The first data will likely be collected in January 2014.

Not Following Wisconsin's Lead

State support for frac sand regulations in Minnesota is in contrast to what's happening in Wisconsin, where Republican state legislators are trying to ease already weak regulations.  

Both states are sitting on a massive amount of silica sand. But while Wisconsin has seen a 12-fold increase in the number of industrial frac sand facilities—from 7 in 2010 to 84 in 2013—Minnesota is taking it slower. The state has eight mines and a couple of processing plants.

About a dozen counties and towns in Minnesota have passed moratoriums on frac sand permits until the environmental and health impacts are studied. That includes Winona County and the City of Winona. 

"We started looking at what was happening in Wisconsin," Gurley, the co-founder of Citizens Against Silica Mining, said. "We saw our future if we didn't get our act together."

But as fracking grew, Winona became a convenient transport passage for frac sand because of its strategic location near mines in Wisconsin's Trempealeau and Buffalo counties, and its port and rail infrastructure.

Last year, Lenz, the Winona State professor, found out that the closest air-quality monitoring machine in Minnesota was in the city of Rochester, about 50 miles away. So she made the case to the Pollution Control Agency to set up pollution monitors in Winona. It agreed to do so and to interpret the data.

Kohlasch, the air quality manager from the agency, said the push for stringent regulations of the frac sand industry in Minnesota is being led mainly by concerned residents like Lenz.

Minnesotans routinely say they "don't want to see their state go the route that Wisconsin did—as far as the number of mines, the concentration, the size," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the co-founder of Citizens Against Silica Mining. He is Jim Gurley, not Gurly.

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