With the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry moving full steam ahead, community members from all walks of life throughout the nation are putting themselves at risk to save the land they love. From everyday Americans to activists, one chapter of the Catholic Workers Movement demonstrated their commitment to the cause by creating a barricade to two Minnesota frac sand mining facilities, resulting in the arrest of 35 of the organization’s members.
Matthew Byrnes knew he would likely face arrest for halting the production at two Winona, Minn., frac sand mining operations, yet he accepted the challenge, not only to shed light on the fracking industry, but also to cause tangible disruption.
More than 100 protesters gathered Monday at the two Winona frac sand facilities — a sand frac loading dock and a sand processing plant. Byrnes was among those arrested for causing disruptions and delays to the facilities’ operations.
“It’s a small town and we’re talking about dramatic increase in truck traffic,” Byrnes told Mint Press News. “A lot of people have concerns about dust getting all over the place and dust getting into the lungs of their children.”
The protests were organized by a team of community members who run a homeless shelter and a sustainable food program, comprising the local branch of the Catholic Workers Movement. They were joined by regional Catholic Workers who took up the issue in Winona as one of their own.
While the Catholic Workers Movement has been active in the frac sand debate in Winona, citing health concerns related to the carcinogenic crystalline silica exposure, along with water usage and environmental concerns, Byrnes told Mint Press News the protest Monday took on a new form of intensity, as it’s now open season in the city when it comes to that industry.
“We felt that the moratorium has now run its course, and with the start of a new frac sand mining season that the intensified frac sand activity would require intensified action on our part,” Byrnes told Mint Press News.
Community members also are concerned about the impact frac sand mining would have on the beauty of the area. In order to extract sand, mining companies have adopted a new form of blufftop removal, leaving once-rolling landscapes flat and barren.
Winona County issued a three-month frac sand mining moratorium, which expired in April. Its Board of County Commissioners have emerged as advocates of the industry, creating a rift in communities throughout the county.
Frac sand in Winona County
The emergence of frac sand mining in Minnesota’s Winona County has not been without its battles. The latest hotbed of controversy in the county’s St. Charles township ended in a victory for those opposed to the new industry.
In March, the city council of the town of 660 people voted down a proposal from Minnesota Proppant to construct a $70 million frac sand processing plant in the heart of the farming district. It was a victory for residents and neighboring community members, who rallied against the heavy truck traffic and the exposure to silica sand.
Yet for other areas of the county, the battle has just begun. In early April, the Winona County commissioners indicated they wouldn’t limit a proposed site near the county’s Utica township. Commissioners also voted down an environmental impact assessment regarding the new plant, expected to extract more than 600,000 tons of sand over a course of three years.
At this point, a comprehensive analysis on the risks related to silica sand dust for those living near frac sand mining and processing plants is not yet known. What is known is that silica sand is a carcinogen — and that long-term exposure does cause silicosis.
“We know after years of research of the people who work in the [sand mining] industry that it is a disease that takes its toll on the workers,” Crispin Pierce, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who is leading the way in studies relating to the potential impact of community sand exposure, told Mint Press News.
Pierce said there’s reason for those living near silica sand mining operations to be concerned, as adequate studies have not yet been conducted. This has been a talking point among those in Minnesota, who in March lobbied the state legislature to issue a moratorium on frac sand mining in the state until further evidence could be provided. Minnesota’s Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said he would not support a moratorium.
Carrying on the fight
Monday’s incident displayed the newfound dedication that Winona, Minn., activists and community members have in the fight to keep their communities free of the threats of silica sand mining. While the arrest of more than 30 people caught the attention of regional media, it was not the first time the Catholic Workers Movement has taken such a stand.
Twice last spring, local Catholic Workers protested outside what is known in Winona as “Mount Frac,” a large stockpile of silica sand located near residential areas. The group twice protested at the site, drawing attention with signs and temporarily halting the flow of trucks to and from the site. The protesters dispersed when law enforcement threatened them with arrest.
In another incident last year, one protester was ticketed for littering when he threw down frac sand onto the steps of the city hall.
In October 2012, Winona’s Catholic Workers traveled north to Brooklyn Center, Minn., where an industry sand mining conference was taking place. Part of the conference included a bus tour in the mining and oil industries to the southern portion of the state, where much of the sand mining takes place.
“Our slogan for that was, ‘Our tragedy is not your tourism,’” Byrnes said regarding the October bus tour action.
Activists delayed the tour by two hours after getting on top of the bus and preventing it from moving — resulting in half a dozen unlawful assembly arrests.