The Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland" was for many an eye-opening conversation starter on the environmental hazards of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
A new independent documentary called "The Price of Sand" aims to play a similar role in the region's frac sand mining debate.
St. Paul filmmaker Jim Tittle started his project, like "Gasland" director Josh Fox, after a fossil fuel company began speculating near his family's land. About two years ago, an oil company bought land down the road from his mother's home in Hay Creek Township, south of Red Wing, Minnesota.
As word spread about the company's plans to build a 150-acre open pit silica "frac sand" mine, nearby residents started asking questions about how it would affect them. Tittle, a freelance videographer, decided to seek answers across the river in Wisconsin, where more relaxed regulations had already attracted a silica mining boom.
The extra-fine sand, which is plentiful in the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, is part of the slurry that's injected underground during fracking to loosen oil and gas deposits. The surge in domestic drilling has brought with it a spike in demand for silica sand, which has nearly doubled in price since 2006 to more than $46 per ton in 2012, according to a recent SEC filing by U.S. Silica.
Several counties in Minnesota, where smaller-scale mines have long operated, have passed moratoriums on new sand mining, and the state legislature is considering a one-year statewide ban so health and environmental impacts can be better studied.
In Wisconsin, the mining boom has created jobs and tax revenue, but also dust, traffic and other disruptions to the rural communities Tittle visited.
"Because of the amount of money involved, things are being done to people and towns that wouldn't normally be allowed or permitted," Tittle said.
In November 2011, Tittle started filming interviews with residents, businesspeople and officials who live or work near silica sand mines. He uploaded a series of clips to YouTube and within three months they were viewed more than 10,000 times. (Views now exceed 55,000.)
"The Price of Sand" grew from that project. Tittle crowdfunded a budget of $6,800 to partially cover expenses like an aerial photography flight over a cluster of Wisconsin silica mines. The 57-minute film combines interviews with aerial footage and other images, including microscopic photos of silica particles.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration classifies silica sand as a workplace hazard. Unlike beach or playground sand, ultra-fine silica is easy to inhale. Workers who breathe the dust may be at risk for lung cancer and silicosis, in which scar tissue forms in the lungs, reducing their ability to absorb oxygen.
Little is known, however, about risks from broader environmental exposure outside of a workplace setting.
The film will officially premier next month at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, but Tittle received permission to hold two advance screenings, March 22 in Red Wing and March 28 in St. Paul, so that he can get it in front of audiences while the Minnesota Legislature is still considering a statewide moratorium.
"I'd love to see it have an effect," Tittle said.
The problem he sees in Wisconsin is that the industry has grown at a faster pace than regulators can keep up with. Responsible companies are managing dust with moisture and enclosures, but "bad actors" are getting away with excavating and trucking it away as fast as possible with little regard for neighbors.
"It's not terribly efficient or well organized or regulated," he said.
"Personally, I have strong feelings about the environment, but also, I drive a car, I live in a house, I use the products that come from silica mines," Tittle said. "I know they need to mine it and there's no way to just stop it. The question is how do you have a reasonable impact on people."