Life-saving rescue at frac sand mine


10M gallons of contaminated water spilled


Last Monday morning, workers and first responders saved a Trempealeau County man’s life after his bulldozer slid into a retention pond at the Hi-Crush frac sand mine in Whitehall, Wis., and he nearly drowned. A Gerke Excavating employee working at the mine was trapped underwater inside the cab of the bulldozer for over two hours before some of his fellow heavy equipment operators were able to breach an earthen dam, drain the pond, and allow rescuers to reach him.

As a result, approximately 10 million gallons of wash water rushed out of the pond. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the silty water reportedly contained polyacrylamide, an additive used in washing frac sand which can break down into acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen. DNR Communications Director James Dick said his agency is awaiting the results of a laboratory test to find out more about the chemicals released in the wash water. The tests are expected to take a week, he said. In the meantime, DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials said they have not seen any fish kills or other obvious signs of environmental damage. Sludge left behind by the rushing water coated neighboring fields and the banks of a nearby creek and tinged water in the Trempealeau River, Mississippi River, and parts of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge a brownish orange color.

Trapped in a ‘steel coffin’

The 9-1-1 call came in 7:53 a.m. last Monday: a bulldozer with a man trapped inside had fallen into a detention pond, according to the Trempealeau County Sheriff’s Office. Whitehall Fire Chief Jeremiah Pientok reported that the bulldozer was buried under 12 feet of water and silt.

“He said water started coming in the cab and he started praying to God and all of a sudden the water stopped coming in,” International Operating Engineers Union Local 139 President Terry McGowan said. McGowan is the state-level head of the union to which the man and his fellow heavy machinery operators belong, and he said he spoke with the trapped man and other workers who helped in the rescue. If the cab had not been able to hold out the water, the man may not have survived, Trempealeau County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Harlan Reinders said. “He was in a steel coffin buried in 15 feet of quicksand,” McGowan stated. “Can you imagine what goes through a man’s mind? I think that’s everyone’s nightmare.”

On the surface, Reinders was with the man’s family, giving them updates and trying to comfort them. “I think it was terrifying for everybody,” Reinders stated.

After a harrowing two hours, some of the man’s fellow machinery operators were able to safely breach the dam and drain the pond enough for rescue workers to extract the man. “Fellow miners were able to dig a trench and drain the pond,” an official from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) explained. McGowan said it took a skilled operator to breach the dam without falling in themselves. “Just coming around the other side of that pond and breaching it was dangerous because you could have easily slid in … It took a good operator to dig that out and get away before [the water] took you away,” he said.

Officials reported that the rescued man escaped without serious injury and was in good condition. Some firefighters were treated for minor hypothermia, according to Reinders.


Officials from Hi-Crush did not answer questions about how the bulldozer fell into the pond, and Gerke Excavating’s Chad Gerke declined to comment for this story. MSHA Spokesperson Amy Louviere explained, “A dozer operator was working on a dump when the material beneath sloughed into the adjacent pond, submerging the dozer.”

McGowan described it as a mudslide. “He was doing everything according to the way he was trained. It was nothing out of the ordinary. He was doing what he does everyday,” McGowan stated. “These people are very well trained. They have very good safety programs in place, but sometimes something happens that you just cannot anticipate,” McGowan added.

McGowan could not say enough about how the operators handled themselves in this emergency. “We train people to stay in the cab, and that’s what he did,” McGowan said of the man whose bulldozer slid. “I am very proud of the trained operating engineers that teamed up to get him out of there,” he added.

“There are a lot of people who should be commended for the effort that was put into [the rescue],” Reinders said. “It was definitely a group effort by a lot of different agencies, including the employees out at Hi-Crush.”

“We applaud the bravery and work of the Trempealeau County Sheriff’s staff and all those involved in the rescue,” Hi-Crush Chief Operating Officer Scott Preston wrote in a statement. “We will be conducting our own internal review of this incident and will cooperate with both state and federal authorities as they look into it as well,” he added.

“MSHA is investigating this accident and will issue citations for safety and health violations as appropriate,” Louviere stated.

DNR, FWS waiting for test results

According to the DNR, Hi-Crush officials reported to DNR staff that the Whitehall mine’s wash pond contained a type of polyacrylamide. Polyacrylamide is often used in wastewater treatment and mining operations in order to cause sediment to settle out of process water faster. Over a few days, polyacrylamide can break down into acrylamide. The Centers for Disease Control reports that acrylamide can cause nerve damage and has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Acrylamide can also occur naturally in fried or roasted, starchy food, according to the American Cancer Society.

Although the DNR received some information from Hi-Crush about the chemical additive, including safety data sheets, DNR officials said they are awaiting test results from a state laboratory to learn more about the contents of the spill. “Sampling is done to see if, in fact, that polyacrylamide is present and at what levels,” Dick explained. “Testing will also show if there are any metals or other chemicals present.” Asked if the DNR was concerned there may be other contaminants in the water, Dick stated, “We don’t know what else may be present or at what levels. That’s why samples are taken.”

The plume of rust-colored water reached the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge late last week, but as of Friday morning, FWS Area Supervisor Sabrina Chandler said her agency had not yet observed any impacts to animals or habitat. “Anytime anything gets in the river that’s not supposed to be there, it does concern us, but at this point, we’re just waiting to see any impacts that might arise and are in kind of a wait-and-see mode until we learn more about what exactly went in the river,” she said.

Similarly the DNR is monitoring the Trempealeau River and a small creek that flows into it from near the mine, but DNR officials have not observed any fish kills, yet.

Dick stated that Hi-Crush has hired a consultant to help with clean-up and restoration efforts. Asked if the company might face consequences for the spill, Dick wrote, “The focus right now is on the cleanup. We can’t speculate on what may or may not happen in the future.”


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