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Conference draws 50 silica sand mining protestors

Bonita Underbakke says she worries silica sand mining will threaten a thriving tourism industry in Lanesboro, Minn., where she lives. Underbakke was one of at least 50 protesters outside a silica sand industry conference Monday.

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. -- More than 50 people gathered Monday to protest frac sand mining outside a conference on the silica sand resources of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"This is total destruction," said Red Wing resident Kathleen Bibus. "We know the chemicals they use will contaminate the groundwater. We know the dust causes silicosis."

Bibus lives near a proposed mine site. But her concerns about the health, safety and environmental impacts of the sudden boom in new industrial sand mining facilities are shared by many across the Upper Midwest. Sand mines are popping up across the region to meet an increased demand for the sand used in hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas.

Bibus is one of dozens of Goodhue County residents who have been fighting the possibility of silica sand mines, partially because of the increased traffic they would cause and the potential health effects of sand dust exposure. Long-term exposure to fine silica dust can cause an irreversible lung disease known as silicosis.

A newly formed industry association, the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, hopes to assure residents that sand mining can be done safely and responsibly. But President Rich Budinger acknowledges that sand miners haven't done enough to answer community questions.

"I wish we were doing this two years ago. I think a big part of the problem is the misinformation," Budinger said in an interview after the protest.

Budinger said the four founding companies -- Fairmount Minerals, Badger Mining Corp, U.S. Silica and Unimin -- have all been producing industrial sand safely for decades. For other companies to join the association, they have to agree to a code of conduct that prioritizes environmental sustainability and safety.

"The growth of our industry has created a lot of questions in Wisconsin," Budinger said. "We formed to promote the proper management of our industry and provide a fact-based discussion."

Budinger and other sand producers are hoping to dispel many of the concerns that people have about sand mines, including those about the health of residents living near the facilities.

The sand drying process can produce dust, but Budinger said that facilities are built with dust-collection equipment and regularly assess workplace air quality. All the WISA members, he said, must have silicosis prevention plans.

"If we are managing dust within our operations to protect our employees, keeping levels well below the requirements, then we are protecting our neighbors as well," Budinger said.

Still, protesters weren't convinced by the industry assurances they've heard so far. Many, like Mary Kaye Perrin of Winona, Minn., are concerned that frac sand mining will hurt tourism and damage the land they love.

"For me, once a bluff is gone, it's gone. It's not a thing that you can bring back," Perrin said.