Frac sand mine mishap turns a river orange

As the debate over water quality vs. mining rages in the northern part of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the southern part of the region is providing a good lesson in pollution: You never know what’s going to cause it.

The owners of the Hi-Crush mine in Whitehall, Wis., a frac sand mine, appear to have met all the regulations when constructing a holding pond for sludge and chemicals to keep them out of the Trempeauleau River.

But here’s what those protections didn’t anticipate: a bulldozer and its driver sliding into the retention pond.

Robbie Gunderson and his vehicle were completely submerged in the pond. An air-tight cab kept him from drowning. For more than two hours, rescuers tried to get to him but all the efforts failed. So they decided to breach the dike and let the sludge and chemicals flow into the river it was designed to protect.

It turned the Trempealeau River orange.

It was a decision that had to be made, of course, but it has fanned the debate over environmental damage caused by frac sand mines even when steps are taken to prevent it.

“That stuff isn’t mud,” Angela Sylla, who lives across the street from the mine, tells the La Crosse Tribune. “They’re washing sand. That’s full of chemicals.”

She’s taken water samples from the pond in the past and sent them to water testing companies while disputing the mine owners’ assertion that there’s nothing harmful coming out of the mine.

The paper says officials don’t know yet what they’re dealing with.

Roger Haro, a professor of biology in the River Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said a sediment plume can smother animals and plants that live on the river bottom, which in turn uses up oxygen in the water.

The spill had reached Dodge by noon Wednesday and was heading toward the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, where the Trempealeau River flows into the Mississippi River.

Sabrina Chandler, manager of the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, said the Fish and Wildlife Service was still working to figure out the potential impact.

“Any time something foreign, chemicals get into the river it’s a concern,” Chandler said. “At this point we don’t know what the implications may be.”

That environmental officials don’t know what’s in the water that’s heading for the Mississippi River reveals a flaw in the protections. Why don’t they know?