Around 30 individuals gathered in Vivian Tuesday morning to protest the development of a potentially hazardous silica sand mine.

Experimental mining at the site, located in the RM of Springfield, has been ongoing for two years, as a Calgary-based company called CanWhite tested the feasibility of extracting a rare silica deposit that lay 200 metres below a vital aquifer. Uncovered piles of sand mined during this period can be seen from the nearby roadway.

While CanWhite’s presence in the region has been known about since they first arrived, a recent application for a permit to build a processing facility in Vivian has mobilized their critics. To a large number of residents in the municipality, the proposed operation poses a variety of concerns, chief among them, the risk of Silicosis, a lung disease with strong ties to the mineral.

“Silicosis is a debilitating disease that eventually causes death, similar to asbestos,” defines Hugh Arklie, “and people who live in the neighborhood and work in the facility will be subjected to that.”

Both a Springfield residents and an environmental activist, Arklie is one of several core individuals in a protest group that is aimed at stopping the mine’s development or, at the very least, ensuring it is done safely.

“We’re getting nothing out of this except environmental damage,” he states, “and all of the profits will be leaving the province.”

Silica sand is known for causing Silicosis and has been linked to numerous other ailments (photo credit: Tanzi Bell).

The main point of contention held by Arklie and his cohorts is the health risk.

“It’s not complicated,” he states. “We don’t want our water contaminated during the mining process and we don’t want the air contaminated with silica dust.”

Fellow protester Tanzi Bell notes that the exposed piles of unmarked silica sand on crown land only exacerbates the issue.

“There are no precautionary signs saying there is a carcinogenic agent nearby,” stresses Bell, pointing out that there are other related health hazards beyond Silicosis. “And there is no covering of the sands so they are vulnerable to the elements and blowing around in the wind.”

Because the testing site is on crown land, it is not uncommon for ATVs to frequent the area nor for kids to play on the sandhills. Bell says such activities, if repeated enough times, could be unwittingly lethal. The protest, she adds, was a publicity stunt intended to spread awareness about that danger.

Bell and Arklie also share apprehensions about CanWhite’s methodology. The company has applied for two environmental assessments; one to license their processing plant and another to license their mining procedure. Both protestors intuit that the approval of the facility would inevitably lead to the approval of the mine. “It would be rigged,” as Bell puts it.

However, if the approvals were reversed, and the mine was appraised first, the two feel the assessors would more readily point out its flaws and suspend the whole operation.

A pile of exposed silica sand can be seen from the road (photo credit: Tanzi Bell).

CanWhite Chief Operating Officer Brent Bullen, meanwhile, says all of these protestations are misguided. The COO says he is disappointed he was not invited to the event to correct certain pieces of misinformation.

“We don’t feel there is a risk of the sand flying around and we don’t believe that [us] damaging the aquifer is a valid concern.”

He admits that the exposed piles of silica sand is a nuisance but says the hills pose roughly the same threat as the sand along Grand Beach. He indicates the timely clean-up and reclamation of the site was supposed to happen months ago, but that incentive was stifled by the onset of COVID-19.

Bullen also offers an explanation as to why no signage or barricades exist around the mining site: “Our gates were stolen and our signs were removed.”

In terms of the order of environmental assessments, Bullen says the facility’s approval is being prioritized over the mine so crews can safely get to work as soon as possible; it is not intentionally devious. Once the operation is granted all necessary permits, Bullen assures naysayers that it will be very safe and very contained. All processing and transportation of the sand will be done in a negative pressure system in a way that eliminates dust. Contrary to popular belief, Bullen says the silica sand they are hoping to mine in Vivian is not intended for oil fracking, but for technology like medical glass, solar panels, computers, and fiber optics. Though Bullen cannot confirm with full certainty that his mine will be free of the health risks commonly associated with silica sand, he says that is their ultimate goal.

Still, Arklie and Bell are less confident and feel it would be better to have no mine at all than to have one that poses even the slightest chance of fatal illness.

Contrary to popular belief, Bullen says very little of the silica sand will be used in oil fracking (photo credit: Tanzi Bell).