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St. Paul residents concerned about trains carrying frac sand through neighborhoods

Lines of open rail cars carrying frac sand, as seen from the Raymond Avenue bridge looking east.

The frac sand controversy that is riling up folks in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin has now raised some questions in St. Paul.

The fine silica sand mined from Minnesota and Wisconsin quarries is injected into wells to release oil and gas in a hydraulic fracking process. The sand is transported to wells in other states by rail and boat.

Mining permits and transportation issues of the sand are being forcefully debated in Winona and other river areas.

Now residents in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood have noticed yellow sand passing through their neighborhood in uncovered railroad cars, and wonder if they should be concerned about potential health problems.

Railroad cars filled with what appears to be frac sand are regularly spotted passing through the neighborhood under the Raymond Avenue bridge; sometimes they sit for days on the tracks, residents say.

A long string of uncovered cars with yellow sand was visible from the bridge Thursday night, stretching to the east.

But the Minnesota Commercial Railroad, which operates 150 miles of track in the Twin Cities, said in a letter to area residents that the sand they see going through the city in the company’s uncovered train cars is not hazardous:

“It is raw quarry sand with a high moisture content – six to ten percent, and very heavy. It does not “blow” off of trains. Commodities identical and similar to this have moved in open top cars for decades without any environmental problems.”

The letter says an “outside independent consulting firm” tested air samples in and around the rail cars, and found that “air quality was not impaired in the area.”

“The sand has so much moisture content that during winter months, it freezes into large clumps … It is important to note that the moisture content and qualities of this have NOT varied or changed and we continue to monitor it. The air quality monitoring devices were placed at locations where both loaded and empty cars were located. It is also important to note that the sand in rail cars retains this high moisture content making blow off impossible.”

To try to get to the bottom of the issue, the St Anthony Park Community Council will hold an informational meeting June 27, at the South St. Anthony Rec Center, 890 Cromwell Ave. (Community organizer Lauren Fulner-Erickson would like RSVPs, for planning purposes.)

Fulner-Erickson said representatives from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Commercial Railroad and Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway (BNSF) will be at the meeting.

“There’s conflicting information out there and much uncertainty, so we’ll listen to what they say about the sand and the transport, and the community will be able to ask questions,” she said.

“But people who live nearby have said they noticed the sand going through everyday and some cars that sit for days,” she said.

Concerns about the sand reached the St. Anthony Park Community Council’s Environment Committee, which hopes to get the railroads to cover the sand.

Amy McBeth, BNSF public affairs director, told the Park Bugle newspaper that “frac sand is hauled through [St. Anthony Park railbeds] in covered and uncovered hoppers.” But she said the sand is “natural sand, akin to beach sand.”

And while Minnesota law requires trucks to cover loads to prevent contents from falling, blowing or leaking from truck beds, the paper said, there is no similar law for railroads.

Fulner-Erickson said the St. Anthony group is also working on the matter with the nearby Hamline-Midway, Como and Union Park councils, along with the Southeast Como neighborhood group in Minneapolis.

“The railroad is a major piece of our community; it bisects our neighborhood,” she said.

“Our goal is to figure out what’s actually happening — what’s being transported, what are the laws, what are the potential health concerns. And if there aren’t any criteria, we’d like to work with the MPCA to develop some.

“Sand blowing in the air is not a healthy thing.” 

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/08/2012 - 09:29 am.


    I’m sure that if this sand was being used to make glass over in Menomonie, WI that no one would have cared in the first place. I don’t care for this sort of political b.s. in the name of some nebulous health concern, because the sand that’s being mined for fracking purposes is not the kind that’s hazardous to your health. I used to work as a sandblaster at a steel bridge girder plant in Des Moines, IA and had to wear a respirator and body suit because you didn’t want to breathe in the broken sand grains from the blasted sand as that had microscopic sharp points that can cause silicosis. Fracking sand on the other hand has to have rounded grains to work, so it doesn’t pose such a health hazard.

    As for covered trucks, that’s necessary because they move at high speed on roads and it’s safer to minimize material blowing or falling from trucks and hitting other vehicles.

    • Submitted by tony nelson on 06/08/2012 - 12:09 pm.

      Frack sand is a carcinogen(according to the Mayo Clinic). In Apple Valley where we have gravel pits(much larger sand) we force the trucks to be covered and washed before leaving the mine. Frack sand is extremely fine, measured at the micron level. Drive thru Maiden Rock, WI which has an underground mine & rail loading facility & see the perpetual cloud of dust over the city. The people keep their windows closed & yet still have to dust daily(you can buy a house cheap there). The mine cleans the road(Hwy 35) daily(at nite) as well as the tracks from the dust blowing around. As far as that sand being wet, yes it is, but after riding thru MN & WI at 60 miles per hour, you know the top layers are dry & will blow. Frack mines are consuming western WI rapidly(60 now & 60 to come). The governor has eliminated most of the state regs that would slow it down. They mined 153 million tons last year & growth is exponential. $300 to $1400 per ton drives that. A new loading facility is proposed for Stockholm, WI which would handle 500 to 1000 trucks per day. Infra-structure in rural areas cant handle this. The Chippewa Falls mine uses 550 trucks per day. Jobs? They bring in their own people, their own trcuks, their own fuel & they use the sand themselves so no sales tax.

      • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/08/2012 - 01:04 pm.

        I’m not excusing dust from operations being a nuisance that mines need to address, or that a perpetual cloud of dust is healthy for anyone. I’m skeptical that sand that’s transported by rail cars is a health hazard though.

        • Submitted by tony nelson on 06/08/2012 - 04:25 pm.

          bigger picture

          Now that we have accepted carcinogens as a nuisance, let’s get on the facts that WI alone shipped 153 million tons last year. Next year there be twice as many mines there. The prospective loading sites in Frontenac & Maiden Rock will load to barges but mostly to trains. That will be all new sand coming from new mines in MN. Just south of Shakopee they are looking at 2 new mines, 1 is 1000 acres. At what point does the “nuisance” become a health risk. These trains and mines run 24 hours a day. How many years do your children have to breath this to become ill. This dust can carry 5 miles. Years ago at the Koch refinery they did air studies(1 hour a day, 5 miles away) & said the air was clean. Senator Wellstone brought in a bunch of air monitors in the nearby neighborhoods & found the air to be polluted & Koch was fined & forced to clean up. My brother now has a rare form of cancer as do most of his neighbors. Do we wait til your brother or child has cancer?

    • Submitted by Maria Karpinski on 10/08/2017 - 04:52 pm.

      St Anthony Park 2012 update 2017

      Three residents living one home away from the running trains with frac sand and oil.

      Two of us live in the home right next to the trains running. Age 67 female healthy until 5 months ago acute pulmonary fibrosis found. On hospice with one month to live.

      Age 55 me, live with 67 female. Me female too liver scarring found last Oct 2016, clean life without drinking or any drugs or history of it. Cirrhosis possibility, and epiloic appendagitis diagnosed.

      Woman 3 houses away from train age 54, healthy, acute leukemia last Sept.

      Woman across the train tracks age 53 healthy, suddenly acute leukemia 2015/16.

      Osha collecting frac sand health issues from people living on the rail lines,
      Number one diagnostic death: Acute Pulmonary Fibrosis. Number two diagnostic death: Acute leukemia and third liver failure due to methane from the oil tanks that seeps in the air all the time. We smell it like a turned off pilot light from your oven only heavy and for hours. Also smell kerosene odors or tar like odors at times in the air from this methane.

      Would love to see MN Post follow up with educational story on all of this now in 2017.

  2. Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/08/2012 - 09:33 am.

    Some useful information about glass, er fracking sand

    From the Chippewa Valley Business Reporter, Summer 2008:

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/08/2012 - 10:16 am.

    I’m not inclined to believe this is related

    to fracking opposition, generally. The neighborhood has a long history of concerns over railroad operations in the area.

    • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/08/2012 - 12:41 pm.

      Fair enough

      I can understand how the volume of fracking sand passing through has gone up in St. Paul thanks to oil and gas drilling in North Dakota, which make it more noticeable. I do think people make some erroneous assumptions though when it comes to health concerns.

  4. Submitted by Michael Jacobs on 06/08/2012 - 01:37 pm.


    Such a seemingly harmless substance, to some. But so was vermiculite to W.R.Grace and Co.

  5. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 06/08/2012 - 01:55 pm.

    Many very innocuous sounding things are not very good in your lungs, and silica dust is one. Silicosis is a known health problem in sand-blasters, miners, and other construction workers, with it’s own International Classification of Diseases code (ICD-9 code 502).

    As to the response that the moisture content eliminates blow-away, I’d be skeptical if I lived in the area. Anyone with a sandbox in their yard knows that a good baking sun for a day or 2 will render the top layer (i.e., the one that is exposed to 50 mph winds when underway) dry as a bone.

    If there are regular air-monitoring readings taking place, the railroad should share the data. Otherwise, there is just far too long a history of deceit and denial when it comes to corporations, pollution, and public health.

  6. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 06/08/2012 - 02:13 pm.

    Wait a second…

    You said in your earlier post that frack sand is not hazardous, and then you imply in your next post that it is perhaps hazardous–you can’t have it both ways. I assume you are distinguishing between amorphous and crystaline sand. In fact the mining and cleansing process (which uses numerous toxic chemicals) produces crystalline silica sand. As Tony points out, it is well documented by both the Mayo Clinic and (below) the State of Wisconsin that frack sand is indeed toxic. Please read:

    With the potential for thousands of tons of sand to frequently pass through the immediate area in uncovered rail cars, I think that there is plenty of reason to be concerned. In fact, so much sand is lost that the tracks must also be constantly cleaned. I recommend you go to Maiden Rock and Stockholm, WI to listen to what that sounds like.

    • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/08/2012 - 03:58 pm.

      Size matters

      Silicosis is caused by silica, i.e. sand particles smaller than .001 mm (10 micrometers) being ingested into the lungs. The diameter of fracking sand particles is .42 mm, which is far larger and generally not airborne. It’s important at the mining site to maintain dust control and require workers to wear face masks given the work environment, but processed sand being transported in rail cars is not a health hazard.

      As for chemicals being used, the sand after it’s mined is crushed and washed with water that’s had what are called flocculents added to it to bind and help remove impurities from the sand. The flocculents aren’t evidently so toxic as to present a public health hazard, as this document relates:

      FYI, I’ve been to Maiden Rock and Stockholm and other points along the river and driven by the mine as well, and would also want to not seen sand being mishandled. I don’t think that’s a problem in St. Paul, however.

  7. Submitted by tony nelson on 06/08/2012 - 05:13 pm.


    I am assuming that a ton of silica sand has particles of many sizes & that these particles including .42mm particles will take flight if sitting on top of an uncovered railcar going 50 or even 10 miles per hour. Seeing as children may be growing up with in the 5mile radius talked about by the Mayo Clinic & breathing that for the next 5, 10 or 20 years, that may cause some health issues. Ask the 700 mineworkers that died in the 1930’s in the Union Carbide project in the Hawk’s Nest Mountain. As to the sand washing chemicals used, they are mixed with other chemicals to make them inert & then stored in ponds & allowed to dry. After that they are placed into the mine pits to re-fill the holes Unfortunately they are now finding the chemicals when mixed with ground water will re-activate, with the silica sand that used to filter these impurities for us, now on it’s way to North Dakota or a windowsill near you.

  8. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 06/09/2012 - 12:09 am.

    There is a big problem here with your argument…

    Your points are a best case scenario only. You are not taking into account the nature of the Karst topography. The flocculants added to bind the sand are put back after processing into the cavities left behind by excavation. Because of the porous nature of the sedimentary rock as rainwater seeps into the ground it breaks down the flocculants and could produce a toxic mess. The reclamation techniques are not well suited to this type of topography. Also, the blasting is done with a combination of ammonia nitrate and fuel oil. The Maiden Rock mine and many other sit atop the Jordan aquifer. That is another way that local groundwater can and will become polluted. I recommend reading the document you have submitted.

    As for Saint Paul, it may not be a problem but as these mines become more numerous and more sand passes through it may well become a problem.

  9. Submitted by Audrey Hamilton on 06/10/2012 - 03:36 am.

    Frac sand is not beach sand!

    Google ‘fractured silica’ – this is what fills the rail cards that travel through our neighborhoods. The Park Bugle has a much better article:

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