Skip to content Skip to footer

The Price of Sand

Ellen Cantarow reviews a new documentary exposing hydraulic fracturing’s companion industry, frac-sand mining.

Screen grab of "The Price of Sand" via YouTube)

In the gorgeous countryside of western Wisconsin, along the Mississippi; in Minnesota, across the river; and in Iowa, just to the north, hills and bluffs rise, breathtaking in their beauty, the region’s ecological and touristic patrimony. That patrimony is being hacked apart and carted away, used in other rural places to exploit other ancient formations.

Under the hills’ covering of trees and greenery lies dazzlingly white, 400 million-year-old Jordan sandstone. It contains silica – perfectly rounded crystalline grains strong enough to withstand the enormous pressures of high-volume hydraulic fracturing. The technology, which fractures deep rock formations to force out the methane they contain, pumps millions of gallons of chemical-and-sand-laced water underground at high pressures. The blasts fracture the rock; the silica props the fractures open, allowing the gas to flow continuously upward. The industry can’t do without the silica – hence the gold rush in sand that is destroying landscapes, particularly in Wisconsin and Illinois, but increasingly in Minnesota.

Much is known about fracking, which has long been in the mainstream, as well as online, news. But little is known about its companion industry, frac-sand mining. If there’s any primer I’d recommend to remedy that ignorance, it’s “The Price of Sand,” a 58-minute jewel of a film just released by Minnesota filmmaker Jim Tittle. “The goal of this project,” he writes at the film’s web site, is to “find the real price of frac sand. Not just in dollars, but in friendships, communities and the future of our region.”

Tittle lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, just across the Mississippi from Wisconsin. He knew nothing about the mining until two years ago, when his brother, a geologist and farmer, told him a neighbor had sold his land to an oil company for three times what the property would ordinarily command – close to $2 million. Skyrocketing prices are characteristic of the sand rush.

Tittle, the film’s unseen narrator, takes the viewer through his own journey of discovery, both about the industry’s claims and its harms, as he interviews farmers, storekeepers, truck-drivers, an artist, town officials and experts in geology and public health. Most oppose frac-sand mining, but there are enough proponents for balance. (Tittle told me that most industry advocates he asked refused to be interviewed. Among those who consented are a Minnesota geologist and the mayor of the village Tunnel City, Greenfield township, which sold much of its land to Connecticut-based Unamin Corporation for the largest sand mine in the state.)

Against the industry’s arguments for itself (money and jobs) stands the secrecy with which it has penetrated communities (“I felt like we were just kind of back-doored,” says Bonnie Hilt of Tomah. “I mean, hey, there’s a mine goin’ in across the street from the house . . . It was a done deal before we even knew about it.”) Other interviewees describe the burdens of semi-trailer traffic on fragile rural roads (“I can get up to 1,000 trucks a day on this road, one every 15 seconds,” says Brenda Tabor-Adams, a veterinarian living in New Auburn, Wisconsin, who gets awakened by the traffic on the tiny rural road behind her house at 5:45 every morning) and the danger of diseases caused by prolonged inhalation of silica – asthma, tuberculosis, cancer, kidney disease and silicosis. Finally, there’s the discord created in once-cohesive, neighborly communities caught in collisions between the industry’s promises of instant wealth and the mining’s long-term destruction of ecology and public health.

There are no interminable talking heads here; no over-long camera stills or pans. The film’s forward movement is at once novelistic and swift; you’re not aware how much information you’ve absorbed until the film ends. The scenes through which Tittle takes his audience are arresting and seamlessly sequenced, giving breathtaking perspectives both on the region’s beauty and on the industrial ugliness shattering it. “I have chickens, I have cats . . . dogs . . . a miniature pony . . . some horses,” says a woman farmer at the start of the film, as she scatters feed near a shed to feed her chickens while they cluck in the dirt. “It’s a rural community. That’s why we moved here. So we could have our animals and we could enjoy ’em.” The cream color of the shed, the wagon wheels resting against it, a dark ornamental star on its weathered door; an echo of the shed’s colors in the stone of an adjacent building; several horses lazing in the background against a backdrop of trees – this framing typifies Tittle’s exquisite renderings of ordinary Midwestern life. You could lift any one of them and hang it on your wall. Against these portraits of undisturbed rural tranquility are juxtaposed the sight and sound of trucks rumbling along fragile rural roads; clouds of dust billowing up from heaps of freshly-mined silica-sand; and shocking aerial views of the moonscapes created by frac-sand mining where the hills once stood.

Against the claim by a Minnesota geologist that silica dust causes no more harm than ordinary farm dust, Tittle counters with a description by Victoria Trinko, farmer and town clerk of Cooks Valley, Wisconsin, of the whistling sound coming from her lungs (she noticed it one day as she was resting; her doctor diagnosed asthma caused by a nearby sand mine.) Crispin Pierce, a public health expert at the University of Wisconsin/Eau Claire, explains the lethality of freshly mined silica. The most dangerous dust is too small to be seen. It cannot be coughed up; it lodges in the lungs, its edges jagged and razor-sharp. “Under a microscope,” says Tittle, as he illustrates his point with a microscopic view of silica grains, “silica looks lethal. Like broken glass.”

Jamie Gregar and Bonnie Hilt, young mothers who live next to the Unamin mine, are trapped: They can’t sell their land (who wants to live next to a mine?) “I know there are questions of how far this will travel,” says Gregar. “But when you’re living right next to it and right next to the rail heads that are hauling it, it’s obvious that some of this dust is going to get into people’s homes.” Both women fear for the health of their children who run around outdoors all day.

I met Tittle last year while writing my own story about frac-sand mining and saw some of his rough cuts for this film. They were so compelling that I feared the finished film might fall short of its promise. Instead, it exceeds them.

“Farming is a gamble, but you stick with it, and you invest in your land,” says Victoria Trinko. “A neighbor said, ‘Vicky, you can farm the same land over and over, but once you mine it, it’s gone.'”

The film’s background songs for guitar and voice are all original, including its mournful theme, “The Hills Are Gone” by Lucas Stangl.

DVDs may be purchased at the film’s web site.

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.