Sand storm

Cross-posted from my blog.

I visited the St. Croix Watershed Research Station last week — a Science Museum facility near Marine on St. Croix which hosts 20 or so scientists studying how land use affects rivers around the world.

At the entrance to the main building is a display of the couple dozen kinds of mussels that were once found in the Minnesota River. The Minnesota used to be home to more species of mussels than the St. Croix, although it’s now the St. Croix that is known for mussels, including some of which are rare and endangered.

The Minnesota River flows through primarily agricultural land, and it is nearly devoid of mussels now, largely due to excessive sediment. Some of the species of mussels displayed on the research station’s wall are extinct, others have disappeared from the river but can still be found in other rivers.

The health of the St. Croix’s mussels has been on many people’s minds recently because of the incident in April when  a containment berm burst at a sand mine along the river near Grantsburg, WI. The mine spilled fine sediment into the river for five days before a hiker noticed it and alerted authorities. (The ultra-fine sand mined at the site is used in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”)

What’s the harm of a little more sand?

The impacts to the river from the sand mine spill are still being analyzed, but this is not just a matter of a little more sand in the river. The Wisconsin DNR has acknowledged that the type of ultra-fine sand which got into the river is not “native” to the river.

Photo of contaminated stream taken by hiker who reported the issue.
Photo of contaminated stream taken by hiker who reported the issue.

Suspended in the creek which flowed from the mine to the river, the water gave the appearance of “coffee with a lot of cream.”

That is bad news for the St. Croix’s native mussels. These highly-specialized creatures depend on clean, fast-moving water and firm river bottoms to survive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that as little as a quarter-inch of sediment covering a stream bottom can kill 90 percent of the mussels in an area.

What mussels are there and why should I care?

The map below is pulled from the Minnesota DNR’s rare species inventory database, showing where rare mussels and fish have been found in the vicinity of the Grantsburg sand mine incident. The stream carrying the sediments from the mine enters the river just below the Highway 70 bridge.

The blue dots on the map represent vertebrae species, such as fish, which could include gilt darter, southern brook lamprey, and lake sturgeon.

The orange dots are survey sites where mussels have been found — each dot represents an inventory site where up to seven different species have been found. Mussels include:

Note: All species of mussels are protected by law, and it is illegal to take live mussels or even dead mussel shells from the St. Croix River.

Endangered Higgins Eye Mussels (USFWS photo)
Endangered Higgins Eye Mussels (USFWS photo)

Mussels are the proverbial canary in the coal mine for healthy rivers. They need specific habitat, certain fish species present which they depend on for reproducing, and clean water.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the 38 mussel species that live in the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers put it “among the world’s greatest mussel watersheds.”

But it’s just one incident, how big of a deal is that really?

Tiller Corporation, the Maple Grove, MN-based mining company behind the Grantsburg mine, is currently trying to get approval for another mine next to the river — this one a gravel mine downstream in Scandia.

Local residents have been fighting that mine for a couple years, both because of its location, proximity to the river, and the heavy truck traffic that will transport material from the mine and through the small community.

Photo taken on property adjacent to Tiller/Zavoral proposed mine site
Photo taken on property adjacent to Tiller/Zavoral proposed mine site

The Scandia mine proposal is nearing the end of its environmental review. When the draft Environmental Impact Statement was released in April, local writer Laurie Allman published an in-depth article about it on St. Croix 360. She listed many concerns about the proposal and the adequacy of the environmental review, and then poetically described what is at stake:

Along most of its perimeter, the mine would abut land held in scenic easements by the St. Croix Scenic Riverway: the National Park we are privileged to enjoy and serve as citizen stewards. It is, without doubt, one of the most lovely, most vulnerable places along the St. Croix: a place characterized by the sounds of bird song, wind moving through the needles of towering white pines, and the trickle of spring water bound for the river. Continue reading …

The city’s plan does not currently allow mining at the location due to its scenic and natural character, but the mining company is seeking a variance. In comments on the draft EIS (PDF), the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway declared its opposition to the mine being permitted, specifically referencing the Grantsburg mine accident:

Soils at the proposed mine site are sandy and the area immediately to the east of the site down to the St. Croix River has very steep slopes and bluffs that are at a high risk of erosion. Portions of the proposed mine site discharge to three different creeks that run down the steep slopes to the St. Croix River. The DEIS correctly acknowledges that the potential for erosion exists after the start of construction when soils are exposed for overburden removal or other activity …

… The NPS, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), and Burnett County have been involved in responding to a significant sediment discharge to the St. Croix River from Soderbeck Pit (frac sand mine) near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, that occurred in April 2012. Because the Riverway runs through the City of Scandia and the City has zoning authority that can help protect the Riverway, the NPS believes we have an obligation to inform you of this event. Soderbeck Pit is also operated by Tiller and was to be internally drained … Given the vulnerability of the sandy soils and steep slopes at Zavoral site, the potential for a similar sedimentation event exists, brought about by rainfall rather than wash water.

The Grantsburg mine — currently the only of its kind along the St. Croix — had been operating since just last July. In less than a year, the mining company built a containment berm out of the wrong material, didn’t monitor it, and didn’t notify the DNR when it failed.

So they will fix the problem and pay the price, right?

A settling pond at the Grantsburg mine, photo taken before the containment berm failed.
A settling pond at the Grantsburg mine, photo taken before the containment berm failed.

By all accounts, the companies involved have been very cooperative so far. The DNR just sent the case to the Wisconsin attorney general for prosecution. By my calculation, they could face total fines of up to $50,000. Perhaps a big enough fine will be incentive enough to mend their ways, but the Wisconsin DNR’s recent history suggests they won’t be punished severely.

Governor Scott Walker has made loosening environmental protections one of his top priorities. Last month, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that inspections by the DNR had declined significantly from previous years. In one notorious incident, one of Walker’s appointees gave a slap on the wrist to a company which was illegally treating farm fields with human waste at three times the legal limit — bad enough to contaminate nearby drinking water wells.

The Grantsburg mine? It hadn’t been inspected since last fall.

Thinking downstream

Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry (via Dan McGuiness)

I have canoed the stretch of the St. Croix around Grantsburg several times. We’ve gotten out and swam in the little rapids below the Highway 70 bridge where the contaminated stream flowed into the river.

The river is a paradise for me and a lot of people. I can’t wait to share it with my new daughter. The silence, the sandbars, the fish. And the mussels. I can already see the hot summer day several years from now when she will canoe, swim and fish it with us.

In April, a hiker saw a muddy stream flowing into the St. Croix River and said, “That isn’t right.” The only question which remains is if his government will agree.

The St. Croix downstream of Grantsburg
The St. Croix downstream of Grantsburg

On your mark, get set, paddle

A few weeks ago, I participated in my first canoe race, on the Snake River near Mora, MN. I borrowed a friend’s GoPro video camera to play with, and ended up making this short video:

The Snake River Canoe Race is about 14 miles long and has been happening for 32 years. It includes about 175 canoes ranging from hardcore racers who do the trip in less than two hours, to folks out for a good time, like my friend Slim and me.

You can read a bit more about the race and our experience at St. Croix 360. Bottom line is, I thought it was a blast and plan to do it again next May.


The story of the St. Croix River sand mine story

Polluted stream flowing into the St. Croix River from a frac sand mine
Polluted stream flowing into the St. Croix River from a frac sand mine

About a month ago, I was sent a photo of a stream flowing into the St. Croix near Grantsburg, Wisconsin. The stream was muddy with some sort of unnatural sediment. A hiker had taken the photo and someone forwarded it to me because of my website, St. Croix 360, and Facebook page devoted to the St. Croix River.

The picture was alarming, but I didn’t really know what to make of it. Very busy with life and work, I couldn’t look into the matter, and I didn’t just want to throw inflammatory photos out to the public without doing some research. But it sure did make me wonder.

The story breaks

Then, last week, the Country Messenger newspaper published a story featuring the same photo, and having asked some of the questions that needed asking. A dam had burst at a sand mine just upstream, and the waste sand had been flowing into the stream and into the river for at least a few days. The mining company had not even noticed the burst and authorities were unaware until the photographer reported it.

The sand mine is a special one — opened up just last July, it is extracting a type of silica sand used in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas (“fracking”). The Mississippi River regions in Minnesota and Wisconsin have been struggling with rapid growth of this mining industry the past couple years. As fracking has taken off, demand for the sand has risen. There has been much concern about the issue, but the environmental impacts have been a little vague.

There is nothing vague about a stream running “the color of coffee with a lot of cream” into the federally-protected, Wild and Scenic St. Croix River.

Getting the word out

Frac sand mine near Grantsburg
Frac sand mine near Grantsburg (Russ Hanson photo)

Once I had read the Messenger‘s story, I quickly posted on St. Croix 360, including excerpts from the article, and adding a map of the site, as well as another photo sent to me in April by a concerned citizen who had visited the sand mine and expressed worries about its location just a couple hundred yards from the river.

Once I posted the story late Wednesday, I tweeted out the link. Thursday morning, I shared it with the 20,000 Facebook fans of the river. I know with some certainty that it was Twitter that brought it to the attention of a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and I am pretty sure it’s how Minnesota Public Radio News caught wind of it, too.

On Friday, both of the above media outlets ran articles (here’s the Pioneer Press’s). The MPR piece was in turn picked up the Associated Press and published widely across the region. Both stories went deeper than the Country Messenger or I had gone, and added important details.

Today, I shared the St. Croix 360 article with the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, who posted it on their Facebook page. For organizations like the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, this incident is another sign of Governor Scott Walker’s failure to protect the environment. The DNR chief he appointed is a long-time critic of the agency, and enforcement of environmental laws has been lax since he took office.

Record level of interest

St. Croix River musky
The fish the mine accident beat

I launched St. Croix 360 last July 1. A few days later, I posted a couple photos of a musky my buddy Gabe caught while we were canoeing. Until last week, those photos had reigned as the single highest traffic day in the history of the site.

When I shared the sand mine article on Facebook on Thursday, that day quickly surpassed the musky photos. Actually, nearly twice as many people read the sand mine article as the musky post.

Today, when the League of Conservation Voters shared the article, the site experienced its second-biggest day, also surpassing the musky photos. On the League’s Facebook page, it racked up 207 “likes” and 152 shares. On St. Croix 360, the article has been “liked” almost 1,000 times now.

This is interesting, because for a long time I had figured there was just nothing to draw people like pictures of big toothy fish. I was wrong, and I’m glad. While I’ll still think of how I might weave fishing into conservation stories, I understand better than ever the power of investigative journalism.

I simply wish I could have followed up on these photos the day I received them, which was before the county and DNR had been notified and visited the mine, and before the issue had been addressed.

Bad timing

Photo of site where the containment dam burst (Wisconsin DNR photo)
Photo of site where the containment dam burst (Wisconsin DNR photo)

One important connection I saw in the story right away was that the operator of the frac sand mine was Tiller Corp., the same company behind a controversial gravel mine proposal adjacent to the St. Croix River in Scandia, Minnesota.

It just so happens that comments on that mine proposal’s draft Environmental Impact Statement were due on Friday.

Many people in Scandia have been protesting the mine proposal there for at least a couple years. I recently published a guest post on St. Croix 360 by Scandia writer and poet Laurie Allman, outlining concerns about the mine and encouraging people to submit their own comments to the city. (That article is notable for receiving the most comments of anything else I’ve published on St. Croix 360.)

What it all means

For the river, it’s nothing good. In comment threads on the St. Croix River Facebook page, a few people have stated they don’t see what the big deal is, a little sand is nothing to worry about. It just so happens that my uncle, who works for the Wisconsin DNR, feels different:

“I’m sure there were things living there that are going to have difficulty living there now that they’re covered with sand,” said Tom Woletz, a senior manager at the Wisconsin DNR who specializes in sand mining and other industries related to hydraulic fracking.

So does the National Park Service environmental director at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway:

“We don’t yet know site specific impacts, but in general, sediment has an impact on the river bottom which cumulatively impacts the sediment of the river and could affect fish spawning and mussels, and things like that,” Medland said.

Site where polluted stream flows into the St. Croix River
Site where polluted stream flows into the St. Croix River (Wisconsin DNR photo)

Interestingly enough, that musky which was so popular on St. Croix 360 last July was caught maybe a mile from the site where the stream dumps into the river. We put it back after snapping a few photos. It’s what is right for the river, and why not let somebody else catch it too? Unfortunately, it seems Tiller Corp.’s talk about protecting the resource next door to their mine is not much more than talk.

I can’t help being also interested in how this story developed from coverage in a small town paper to hitting the wires just three days later. A lot of people had a hand in that, from the hiker who thankfully documented and reported the incident to the good reporters who made the phone calls and asked the questions that needed answering.

My role was to amplify the issue, via St. Croix 360, Facebook and Twitter. That got the word out to the public, who have a role in deciding how much of this sand mining they want, and where it is and is not appropriate to happen. And it got it to journalists who could bring depth of reporting and breadth of distribution.

What next?

The million dollar question is about dollars. In light of Walker’s extreme pro-business and anti-environment record, will Tiller Corp. receive a “good, swift slap on the wrist” (as one commenter on Facebook said)? Or might this incident be the nail in the coffin for the company’s proposal in Scandia? (The inter-state but intra-watershed angle is fascinating to me, too, but I won’t get started on that).

This is also a story of journalism and conservation today. I’m usually skeptical of “raising awareness” unless it’s part of a broader strategy. In this case, with the implications for a hot-button issue like fracking and frac sand mining, for the connection to the Scandia mine, and to Wisconsin’s governor recall election in a few weeks, it’s amazing to think about the real impact of a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.



Rolling on down the trail

The latest post on my Star Tribune blog.

IMBA Trail Solutions pro builder Stephen Mullins working with CoGGs members at Sprirt Mountain
IMBA Trail Solutions pro builder Stephen Mullins (center) working with CoGGs members at Sprirt Mountain (Photo courtesy Hansi Johnson)

The people of Duluth must have been pretty nice this year. Word came just before Christmas that the Cyclists of Gitchee-Gumee Shores (COGGS) have received a $250,000 grant from a Legacy Amendment fund to jump start development of a new 20-mile mountain biking trail system right in the heart of the city.

The Duluth Traverse will ultimately span the port town from Spirit Mountain to Amity Creek, from the bluffs of the St. Louis River valley to the crashing waves of Lake Superior. When completed, it will be the longest urban singletrack trail system in the nation, connecting several parks to each other which feature their own trail systems.

The Legacy grant comes only after five years of effort. And there are many years ahead and much work to do; this is not a project for the impatient or the lazy. Hansi Johnson is neither of those. One just has to follow his blog to see that (he recently captured several striking photos of riding a extra-fat tired Surly Pug bicycle on the ice of a St. Louis River reservoir).

The Midwest Regional Director for the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) has been by all accounts essential to the project’s success so far. Though Johnson lives outside Duluth, he travels the region helping local cycling groups develop trails in their communities. The Traverse will be in his backyard when complete. Johnson shared the news by noting this is about more than just a new riding opportunity:

It is great to see that off road cycling has become a movement about creating better communities, we have stepped out from singly pushing the “trail” and are now pushing “Trails” plural and how they can create positive lifestyles and change lives.

That might seem like lofty description of some narrow paths through the woods, but the plan is ambitious. The COGGS’ website describes a trail network that will improve opportunities to get out in the woods not just for bikers, but hikers, runners, skiers, snowshoers, and even equestrians:

This trail system will feature trail hubs with more extensive trail networks in Lester Park, Hartley Park, Piedmont-Brewer Park, Spirit Mountain and Mission Creek and then have trails connecting them all together.  Our goal for this system is to create the first 100+ mile system of singletrack all within an urban environment.  This will connect communities together via natural surface trails and also create an environment where everyone has trail access within a short distance of their home that they can walk, run or bike on.

It’s easy to see why so many groups and individuals would come together around the vision. In any good partnership, you do more together than what you can do alone, and this one is doing a lot. In addition to Johnson and his colleagues at IMBA and COGGS and its volunteers, key supporters of the project include the city of Duluth, notably its mayor Don Ness, and other trail groups in the city, representing the hikers, skiers, birders and average citizens who want more places to get out in the woods.

COGGS members building a technical section of trail in Piedmont Park
COGGS members building a technical section of trail in Piedmont Park (Photo courtesy Hansi Johnson)

The coalition has racked up success before this grant. Johnson told me in an email that COGGS has put vast amounts of volunteers hours into the city’s park restoring and closing old trails, as well as investing grant dollars in infrastructure improvements. This has taken a strain off the parks budget, while still improving the parks. This fall, they strongly supported a Parks and Libraries levy that was approved by voters on Election Day.

Mayor Ness recently proclaimed that he wants Duluth to be the “premier trail city in North America.” This isn’t just because there are a lot of mountain bikers or hikers in the town, but because the trail systems are seen as essential to the quality of life the city can offer, from health benefits to recreation opportunities to tourism dollars.

COGGS chairman Adam Sundberg said in a recent article in Northern Wilds that he sees the system having potential as a riding destination up there with other regional stars, reputation as a good place to live and raise a family: “We can have riding every bit as good as Rapid City, CAMBA [the Chequamegon area], UP of Michigan, but we have a town that is much more attractive for arts, culture, kids’ activities, shopping.”

A billboard advertising the Cuyuna trail system near Crosby
A billboard advertising the Cuyuna trail system (Photo courtesy Hansi Johnson)

Just this summer, the biggest new mountain biking trail system in the state opened up amongst abandoned mine pits on the Iron Range at the new Cuyuna Country Recreation Area near Crosby. Johnson told Duluth-Superior Magazine that the park’s grand opening weekend this summer saw all the cafes in town entirely sold out of food.

Hopes are high for the Duluth Traverse. Right now, there is a map, trails scattered around the city, a bunch of dedicated folks, and now, some money to get things started, thanks to the voters and taxpayers of Minnesota. The entire system should cost about $1 million ultimately.

With the new funds, the partners will develop an implementation plan and begin work on the trail system at Lester Park. After that they will work on connector sections which will link trail networks to each other. Johnson wrote in an email that the grant will get things “rolling.”

More: View a map of the proposed trail system (PDF).


Minnesota’s “biggest environmental decision in a generation”

The latest post on my Star Tribune blog.

The land

In Sunday’s newspaper, Josephine Marcotty offered a well-rounded look at controversial new mining proposals in northeastern Minnesota, much of it at the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I have been reading, talking, and writing about sulfide mining for three-and-a-half years now. I am convinced that the extraction of copper, nickel and other metals in the Arrowhead would forever harm large swaths of our state. And the money and minerals do not outweigh that risk.

In her article, Marcotty said Minnesota is facing “its biggest environmental decision in a generation: Whether to open its arms to hard-rock mining, an industry that could bring thousands of jobs — and a record of environmental calamities — to the wildest and most beautiful corner of the state.”

This is indeed a decision for all Minnesotans to make. The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has been working for years to educate citizens, to raise awareness of what is proposed and what it could mean for Minnesota’s clean water, and to ensure we act as the good stewards of our land and water that previous generations did. This is necessary so our kids and grandkids will be able to drink from the lake on BWCAW trips, to eat fresh-caught fish, and to wander trackless woods.

This past weekend, the Friends met with officials from Twin Metals along Highway 1, near the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake, to see where the company — a partnership between junior mining company Duluth Metals and Chilean mining giant Antofagasta — is doing exploratory drilling and to learn more about their plans. The group spent a couple hours touring the woods, talking and asking a lot of questions.


The Twin Metals employees said they intend to build a mine that will not pollute. They didn’t try to convince the Friends representatives in two short hours to forget their concerns, but rather listened and promised continued dialogue. They also spoke at length of “new, modern technology” and a commitment to “doing it right.” They believe they can do this without harming some of our state’s most cherished natural places.

The fact is that nobody opens up a mine planning to pollute. But yet it happens again and again. A 2006 study of such mines found that at least 85 percent of mines in wet environments like Minnesota caused unanticipated pollution.

Copper and nickel are sold on global markets at global prices. Unfortunately, in other countries, there are few environmental protections. This means metals can be mined cheaply, and sold cheaply. Those metals are what Twin Metals, PolyMet and others would have to compete with if they mine in Minnesota. Doing it right affects the bottom line, and digging deep below the earth to extract widely-scattered minerals is expensive in the first place. Preventing pollution carries price tags.

Twin Metals wants to mine in the forests of Stony River Township, near Ely. Something happened in the township two weeks ago that didn’t get much notice. Maybe it was overshadowed by the Pagami Creek Fire news, or maybe the weight of the event just didn’t register. The township’s board of supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling on Minnesota to enact a moratorium on sulfide mining, and short of that, not allow any mining in the township.

Residents of the township have been hearing from the company and other mining proponents for years and after much consideration, decided they wanted to keep their community the way it is, a rural lake district, not one overrun by trucks and blasting and pollution. In a Duluth News-Tribune article about the resolution (subscription required), one of the supervisors who voted for it said it simply and said it best, “We’ve got clean water and a healthy forest and we want to keep it that way.”

The resolution is non-binding. State and federal governments will ultimately decide whether or not Twin Metals ever mines. But the supervisors of Stony River Township, and the community members who encouraged the resolution, have given an answer to this great environmental decision our state faces: Clean water will always be more valuable than any precious metal.