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 (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
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.
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 (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.
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.