As Jim Tittle drove over the Raymond Avenue bridge toward the Hampden Park Co-op one day in early May, he looked down at the open railcars sitting below on the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway (BNSF) tracks and immediately recognized the yellow sand in the cars.
It was frac sand, the silica product that is a key component to the hydraulic fracturing business that has created an oil boom in the United States. Dust from that sand, Tittle says, could drift from those open railcars into nearby neighborhoods and cause health problems.
The sand is being mined along the hills and bluffs of western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota where there are high concentrations of sandstone. Then it’s shipped to oil and gas fields in states like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, where drillers mix it with pressurized water and chemicals and pump it deep underground to break up shale deposits. It’s called fracking, a process that releases the gas and oil that can’t be tapped with conventional oil-drilling tools.
“When you mine silica sand, you are digging into sandstone,” said Tittle. “You are breaking the silica. Google ‘fractured silica’ and you’ll find [the word] ‘silicosis.’”
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in silica particles. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the disease is “entirely man-made and can be avoided through appropriate dust control.”
Tittle’s concerns about the uncovered sand were brought to the St. Anthony Park Community Council’s Environment Committee, and members started doing their own research into the subject.
“It didn’t take long with a Google search to find that frac sand is being looked at as a public health problem,” said Steve Yetter, a district council delegate and member of the Environment Committee.
Amy McBeth, BNSF public affairs director, confirmed that “frac sand is hauled through [St. Anthony Park railbeds] in covered and uncovered hoppers.” But she described the sand as “natural sand, akin to beach sand.”
Minnesota law requires trucks to cover loads to prevent contents from falling, blowing or leaking from truck beds, according to Jason Alcott of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Office of Environmental Services.
“There isn’t a similar statute in Minnesota for railroads,” Alcott said, “although there is a statute about overloading grain cars, but it doesn’t require the grain to be covered.”
Alcott referred to a May 21 report from CBS news that New York Sen. Chuck Schumer was requesting the Federal Railroad Administration to require railroads to cover loads after constituents raised concerns about debris flying from uncovered railcars. Residents claimed property has been damaged by pieces of metal and concrete that fly off freight cars.
“What this means to me,” Alcott said in an email correspondence, “is that there isn’t current legislation or regulation in place requiring railroads to cover their loads. The legal question is whether in the absence of federal regulation, Minnesota can enact legislation to require railroads to cover their loads. I don’t have an answer to that question.”
Minnesota’s state agencies “are in a learning state right now” about frac-sand mining, said Hillary Carpenter, a member of the Health Risk Assessment Unit at the Minnesota Department of Health. “It’s happening very, very fast. There are a lot of questions about zoning and monitoring,” and each of the state agencies has its own role to play.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency handles air-quality issues. The Minnesota Department of Transportation monitors truck traffic. The Department of Natural Resources monitors mining operations.
None of them has control over the rails.
“There is no state regulation of railcars,” Carpenter said.
There are federal workplace laws that deal with silica dust, Yetter said, but those laws only pertain to worksites. “A plume of dust can go into a neighborhood [from a railcar] and the [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] OSHA rules don’t apply.”
The Environment Committee will have an informational meeting on the subject on Wednesday, June 27, at 7 p.m. at South St. Anthony Recreation Center, 890 Cromwell Ave. A representative from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will be there and the committee is hoping to have someone from BNSF there, too.
The Environment Committee’s aim is to find out how to get the railroad to cover the sand, Yetter said. “Our issue is the open container.”
Tittle, a filmmaker who lives in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, said he hadn’t paid attention to the fracking industry until a year ago, when he learned that an oil company had paid three times the market price for 150 acres right next to his mother’s home just outside of Red Wing. “We found out they wanted to mine sand,” Tittle said. “First you think, no big deal. Then, when we looked into it and found out it was frac sand, we found there are a number of problems.”
He is now making a documentary on the subject called “The Price of Sand” and has been traveling throughout Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin gathering information and footage for the film.
“In Winona, I saw long trains of old coal cars filled with silica sand and open,” Tittle said. “I was in Bay City, Wis., and I passed a train going the other direction with old coal cars open and full of sand rolling down the tracks. I could see a cloud of dust coming off of every car.
“A few weeks ago, I was driving over that bridge in St. Anthony Park, and I was thinking about the trains carrying sand. I looked down and saw about 80 of them parked in the yard. I thought, ‘Jesus, they are bringing them right here into town.’ “