This week’s topic is a suggestion from Flatlander Joan, who got me reading about silica sand mining in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, why some people oppose it, how it’s connected to fracking, and that the practice is used here on the Prairies.
What is silica sand?
The good stuff. The simplest way to describe silica sand is it is white sand, as opposed to brown sand. The white sand is pure and valuable, the brown sand is impure and not as valuable.
Silica sand is essentially quartz, which is silicon dioxide. So, it’s one part silicon and two parts oxygen. To be considered a silica sand the material must contain at least 95 per cent silicon dioxide and 0.6 per cent iron oxide. If it isn’t this pure than it’s regular sand.
Ideal for sand blasting. Diamonds can cut glass as it’s one of the hardest minerals on earth. In geology, there is this thing called Mohs’ scale of mineral hardness. Diamonds are a 10 on this scale. Fairly, close behind them is quartz, which is a seven. Because it’s so tough, silica is the type of sand used in sand blasting.
It’s also used for water filtration and on golf courses. If you’ve been stuck in a sand trap, that was probably silica sand. It’s also used on the greens to support drainage. And it’s used in paints, construction material and ceramics.
Silica is also used in fracking, which is the process of drilling into the earth and directing a high-pressure mixture of water, silica sand and various chemicals at a rock layer to release the gas inside.
Fracking is controversial because the high pressure of the water going into the rock can cause mini earthquakes, and, of course, it uses a lot of water. A fracking operation in the Horn River Basin in B.C., for example, used almost 16 million gallons of water. Typically, fracking uses fresh water and can take away from groundwater reservoirs and lakes that people also use for their drinking water.
Opposition. This connection to fracking is one of several reasons why various environmental groups and concerned citizens oppose the silica mining that will contribute to the practice.
Two proposed silica sand mines are causing concern—one is near Vivian in Southeastern Manitoba, east of Winnipeg. The silica sand must be extracted from the groundwater in the Oakbank-Dugald-Anola area, which is one of Manitoba’s largest aquifers, so the concern is that it will be contaminated during mining.
Better than before. The company, Sio Silica Corporation (formerly CanWhite Sands) said that any water returned to the aquifer following the sand extraction process will be of similar or improved quality as the water before it was removed from the ground.
No contamination. The extracted water will be contained and under continuous flow during extraction, and therefore will not be exposed to contaminants throughout the extraction and treatment process, the company said. UV sterilization will be applied to the extracted groundwater prior to it being returned to the aquifer to remove naturally occurring microorganisms that may be present in the groundwater.
Up to code. The company also said the extraction process uses conventional drilling methods that are very similar to those used for drilling a new water supply well. Wells will be decommissioned to meet or exceed provincial standards for water well construction and decommissioning, CanWhite said.
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Air pollutants. Despite CanWhite’s reassurances, people aren’t just concerned about water contamination. There is also worry about the fact that silica sand is carcinogenic. The fine dust it produces can damage people’s lungs, causing the disease silicosis.
Plant damage. Silica particles can also cling to the leaves of nearby plants and trees, disturbing its photosynthesis process. Although the company said the dust won’t be a problem because, during the summer, the silica stockpiles will be kept damp to prevent dust dispersion to the surrounding environment. And in the winter, the wet sand stockpiles will freeze a few inches on the outer layer, suppressing the dust.
Whistleblower.A former employee of CanWhite said although the company talks a good game, in the several months he worked with the company, CanWhite allowed machine oil to leak into a well and ran an unsafe jobsite where people weren’t required to wear masks that would protect them from getting silica particles in their lungs.
The dusty state.Wisconsin has approved about 100 silica sand mining projects, which has led to increased noise, heavy truck traffic, increased rail loading and air pollution. Some residents in the state claim their furniture is covered with silica sand dust.
Nimbyism. If you’re living near a proposed silica mining site, it would be understandable that you might not want to find out through lived experience how safe it is to be nearby such an operation. Many of the people opposed to silica mining in Manitoba are residents near the proposed sites.
Safety and environmental concerns aside, some are upset by how companies proposing projects like silica mines are taking advantage of Manitoba’s Environment Act that allows for staged licencing, so a company can separate a project into different parts, like creating an access road, building a mine and a processing plant, which means they can avoid the government reviewing the cumulative impacts of the entire project.
Ticks in the box. Manitoba’s opposition party says the government of the day is just trying to to push the project through checks and balances as quickly as possible.
More silica mining on the horizon? There is a second silica mining site proposed closer to Lake Winnipeg, but that project has been delayed due to financial reasons. You can read more about it here.
There is interest in silica mining in Saskatchewan. Near La Ronge, Garcia Silica Inc. acquired a lease to two lots of land rich with silica, but production hasn’t begun yet, according to the company website.
Strong Pine Energy Services is proposing to develop and operate a silica sand project southwest of Hanson Lake, Saskatchewan, approximately 100 km west of Flin Flon. In 2019, the company had its proposal and environmental impact statement up for community review, even though there was no financing in place to proceed with the project.
Fracking is common in Canada. The one thing I learned while researching this issue is that fracking is a common practice in Canada. More than 200,000 wells have been fracked for shale gas and oil. It’s estimated that 80 per cent of new oil and gas wells in Canada are fracked.
Close to home. There’s been fracking around Kindersley in Saskatchewan, and, back in 2013, the Winnipeg Free Press reported there were about 3,600 active oil wells in Manitoba, most of which used fracking.
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Until next week…
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