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

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.



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.



The land of pines and mines

WaterI spent Thursday and Friday last week playing tour guide for a reporter in the woods of northern Minnesota. The trip was personally rewarding because in seeking to provide a good story for the reporter, I experienced one myself.

My journey north on Thursday took me to Two Harbors and then straight north to visit a man who has read everything Thoreau ever wrote and owns a canoe Garrison Keillor once paddled. Friday afternoon was foggy as I drove home via a circuitous route on lonely National Forest roads. I went 20 miles at a time or more without seeing another vehicle.

There was pretty scenery, but there was also interesting scenes. I documented the trip with some photos in the slideshow below.


Made to last

Save Our Precious Waters e-Rally

Read on for the latest post on my Star Tribune blog.

Tomorrow is the last day to comment on a Superior National Forest proposal for more mining exploration at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Learn more and speak up at

Last June, I spent a day canoeing down the South Kawishiwi River with reporters and photographers from two major Minnesota news outlets. We launched at a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness entry point a short portage from the Spruce Road, then almost immediately left the BWCAW as we headed downstream toward Birch Lake.

Also in our party was my Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness colleague Betsy Daub and local Ely canoe outfitter and guide Jason Zabokrtsky of Ely Outfitting Company (and his dog Lexee, who I’m pretty sure has spent more days in a canoe than any other dog in the state).

Lexee-dog surveys rapids on the South Kawishiwi River
Lexee-dog surveys rapids on the South Kawishiwi River

It was a beautiful, but nondescript, few miles of river. A snowmobile bridge crossed at one point, as did a power line. While we saw a handful of people during our brief trip through the Wilderness proper, we saw no one on the river outside the BWCAW border. We did see mother mergansers nervously herding their tiny chicks around the shallows, dragonflies zipping over the water, and turtles sunning themselves on logs.

Our group was there to see the area targeted by mining companies seeking copper, nickel and other metals in sulfide ores at the edge of the Boundary Waters. Development of such mines in the area have not gotten as much attention as PolyMet, the first company to try to open up such a sulfide mine in Minnesota. PolyMet, further along in the process, is some 15 or 20 miles southwest of where we were paddling.

The river we were on is in the middle of the area of interest for companies including Twin Metals — a joint partnership between Duluth Metals, a junior mining company based in Vancouver, and Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta. The partnership also recently acquired Franconia Minerals, making for a real mining juggernaut.

A sulfide mining drill site near the BWCAW
A sulfide mining drill site near the BWCAW

On the way to our canoe put-in, we stopped at a clearing on the side of Highway 1, where a couple young men ran a noisy drill mounted on the back of a truck. Gray sludge from the drill was pumped into a holding pond excavated nearby. The iconic north woods highway just east of the South Kawishiwi River is lined by such clearings in the woods, a wooden sign with a number nailed to a tree by the road, and red pipes jutting out of the ground, capping old drill holes.

Already, Boundary Waters users are hearing the noise of such drills while on wilderness canoe trips. And Birch Lake, popular for fishing, camping, house boating, and all sorts of other classic Minnesota activities, is really feeling the brunt. Homeowners and resort guests hear around-the-clock drilling, and they fish the lake alongside drill barges.

On our canoe trip, we portaged around a last set of rapids and then stopped at the Outward Bound camp on the Kawishiwi, where they have been sending young people into the wilderness since 1964. A staff member talked to us about how he could often hear the drilling in his cabin at night.


Canoeing on the South Kawishiwi

The Superior National Forest is considering a new plan for more mineral exploration in the area. The comment period closes tomorrow on the environmental impact statement for 33 permits to explore for which several companies have applied. This means more roads and ripped-up forest in this area, popular outside the wilderness for hunting, hiking, birding, and ATV and snowmobile riding. More importantly, it sets Minnesota down a path toward giant mines at the edge of the most popular wilderness area in America.

These aren’t the iron mines that “helped us win World War II,” as some are fond of repeating. This is a new beast, with pollution problems that Minnesota has never before encountered. Last June, after paddling the South Kawishiwi, we visited an old site along the Spruce Road where a company had dug up a bunch of rock in the 1970s, seeking copper and nickel. Nasty orange soup was leaching out of the rock pile and into a nearby wetland.

The Friends had the drainage tested in an independent lab, which showed levels of copper, arsenic and other metals and chemicals which exceeded water quality standards and could pose a threat to both aquatic life and human health. This was 36 years after the rock had been excavated, and of course the company that did the digging is long gone.

Spruce Road acid mine drainage

Certainly, we have heard much about the benefits these mines could provide. Jobs and metals needed for modern technology, primarily. But there is a wilderness cherished by tens of thousands where these metals happen to be buried. And outside that wilderness are thousands of acres of public land — wild lakes and rivers, vast forests. For the many that believe the clean water, healthy forests and wilderness of northern Minnesota is something special, putting it all at risk for a couple decades of mining seems like a poor trade-off.

The mining industry has not given us much reason for confidence, besides a lot of talk about “doing it right.” In addition to the Spruce Road acid mine drainage, there was the PolyMet environmental review, which earned a failing grade from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February 2010.

The environmental impact statement for the mineral exploration near the South Kawishiwi and Birch Lake is unfortunately flawed, too. It tries to do two things — provide guidelines for even more exploration in the future, and review impacts of the 33 permits up for consideration — and doesn’t do either very well. There is not nearly enough information about how noise pollution in the BWCAW will be prevented, what will be done to ensure local ponds and streams are not de-watered, or how species like the Canada lynx and wolves will be protected. You can learn more on the Friends’ website.

We started and ended our day of canoeing last summer at River Point Resort, located where the South Kawishiwi enters Birch Lake. Husband and wife Steve and Jane Koschak run it, hosting vacationers in quiet cabins, and outfitting canoe parties heading out on wilderness canoe trips. Steve’s dad started the resort as a fishing camp in 1944 and Steve built many of the resort’s buildings himself. Those cabins were built to last.

Learn more about the mineral exploration proposal and comment by the end of the day tomorrow, June 30.

Sunset on Birch Lake
Sunset on Birch Lake