Panic over silica sand mine unwarranted

Frack Sand Information Pamphlet-2
A rendering of the proposed silica plant to be built near Wanipigow.

December 7, 2018

What good is transparency if you refuse to look through the glass?

By Don Norman
In case you have been under a rock for the past two weeks, you’re probably aware that there is a company making plans to develop a silica sand mine near Wanipigow. There have been several stories in the Free Press and on CBC and most of those articles were relying on one source for their information: East Beaches resident, Don Sullivan.

I have never met Mr. Sullivan but I know who he is. I have long admired his photography. He is a wildlife and landscape photographer and I strongly suggest you seek out his work. It’s quite stunning. But it is not just photography that Sullivan is known for. He’s also an environmental activist. He was the former president of the Boreal Forest Network, a group that advocated for and was instrumental in gaining UN World Heritage Site status for the boreal forest that straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border. He is truly someone who is passionate of the beauty and natural history of the region – something most of us would agree upon.

That passion seems to have been stirred again. In recent weeks, Sullivan has initiated a personal crusade to bring attention to this proposed mine. In fact, I learned about it from one of his posts on an East Beaches Facebook page. He started a petition calling for an environmental review process (presumably over and above what is currently required for such an operation – the petition is unclear on that).

And as I mentioned above, in the last week or so, he has managed to get his message out to the Winnipeg media. Most recently, a ¾ page op-ed piece in the Winnipeg Free Press outlining his concerns. Every article I read in the Winnipeg media was quoting Sullivan. Only one (an article by Martin Cash in the Business Section of the Winnipeg Free Press) contacted Canadian Premium Sand (CPS) the company establishing the mine, for their perspective.

Now, I should point out that the biggest market for silica sand right now is the oil and gas industry, where it’s used in the fracking process. And yes, fracking has a bad reputation. Some of it is warranted. But curiously, that doesn’t seem to be Sullivan’s beef with the project.

His biggest concerns appear to be increased traffic along highways 304 and 59; respiratory issues arising from long term exposure to silica sand dust (which can cause silicosis); runoff from the operation contaminating groundwater and/or Lake Winnipeg; and the lack of Section 35 consultations with First Nations and Metis communities. To be clear, these are valid questions to ask and it’s good that someone has raised those concerns.

I spoke to Bronwyn Weaver, the Communications and Community Liaison Officer for CPS. She was grateful that someone in the media was reaching out. And while she had read all of Sullivan’s missives on the company’s plans, I was surprised when she told me he never called the company to try to understand if his concerns were valid. His writing seemed well informed. He clearly had pulled a lot of data from US sources, but made no effort to contact the primary source.

Let’s start with the size of the project. Sullivan’s Free Press article states, “The proposed open-pit mine and processing facility will be the largest of its kind in Canada and one of the largest in North America.” According to Weaver, the statement is a massive exaggeration. “It is a big deposit, but there are mines right now that are an order of magnitude bigger than we will ever be,” she explained. “It’s a big deposit. He’s taking those numbers, turning them around to scare people.”

The scale of the operation is quite small. They will only be mining one five hectare section at a time. Once they’ve mined that section, they will restore it. They are using a rolling restoration method. “At any one time there will be 15 hectares in any kind of disturbance,” she explained. “We will be preparing five hectares, we will be mining five hectares and we will be restoring the five hectares we mined previously.”

Increased Traffic

There will definitely be increased traffic down highway 304 and highway 59 – Sullivan suggests 250 to 500 trucks per day. That’s well above the company’s estimate of 3-5 per hour (72-120 per day). It’s definitely enough to be noticeable. But one truck every 10 or 15 minutes shouldn’t be raising red flags.

Health Concerns

Sullivan is right to be concerned about the health and safety of the people who work at and live near the plant. But it turns out that CPS is quite concerned with health and safety too.

“Health and Safety is a primary issue for us,” says Weaver. She points out that the first step in addressing it involves educating the workforce. “We will make sure that everybody has been through the proper training so that everybody understands the issues of working with silica sand.”

“Secondly, the processing facility is entirely closed. The dust collecting system has a total vacuum system incorporated into the process. All of the ‘fines’ (the fine, dust like sand) end up in a bag-house and our workforce is not exposed in any way to any kind of dangers that would be associated with handling or processing silica sand. That closed system would also stop any silica sand from the processing plant becoming a concern for local residents as well.

Because of the nature of the deposit, when they extract the sand, it is damp. And they excavate the sand, they don’t blast and drill it. The sand is then moved by conveyor to the plant, where it is back in the closed system. All of this will keep dust to a minimum.

Seepage of toxic chemicals

Once the sand is excavated, it goes into the plant where it is washed. No chemicals are added to the washing process. It’s just the agitation of the water that basically washes the dirt off of the sand grains. They will use a closed-loop system, so that water is completely recycled. There are no settling ponds. They will recharge the water from their well. No water will be taken from or end up in Lake Winnipeg.

First Nations Consultation

It is important to note that this project is quite new. There was some intial interest back in 2014, but then it was shelved and the project only got underway again in July of this year. So, not a lot of time has passed. So, CPS hasn’t begun the formal consultation process. That process will commence once they have submitted their permits.

But that’s the formal process of consultations. The company has been reaching out to local First Nations communities. In fact, last week, Hollow Water First Nation released this statement, “We have listened to our elders, our community members, our environmental advisors, and our local neighbors. We have the mandate of our people to move forward in economic partnership with Canadian Premium Sand to build a prosperous future for our people in a way that protects and respects the lands we share, for the next 50 years and beyond.”

In light of all this, Sullivan’s concerns seem a little over-wrought.

I know that Sullivan’s motivation for his personal crusade is well-intentioned. But it’s dangerous to be open to only one perspective. I’m not writing this to demean Don Sullivan. Not at all. But it concerns me 2500 people signed Sullivan’s petition without questioning a single thing he said. He’s calling for transparency, but CPS isn’t hiding anything. Not if you ask them the questions. What good is transparency if you refuse to look through the glass?

This mine will create 150 full time jobs and a $5 Million payroll. There will also be economic spinoffs for the surrounding communities. It would be nice to be able to print some positive economic news in this newspaper.

This is a company that appears to have the best interest of its employees, its neighbours and the environment. They aren’t shirking their responsibilities in terms health and safety, or the environmental review processes or the First Nation consultation process. Why add extra layers of red tape to impede their progress?