Water from frac sand facility reaches national wildlife refuge

In order to rescue a bulldozer operator in a retention pond at a Trempealeau County sand mine Monday, workers released 10 million gallons of pond water. The release of this orange-colored water has now reached the end of the Trempealeau River and is threatening the nearby wildlife refuge.

The water flowed downstream about 40 miles until it hit the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday night. So far, it seems confined to the main channel of the Trempealeau River.

“But we are sending out crews just to make those observations and see if we’re observing any impacts to wildlife,” said Sabrina Chandler, area supervisor for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

All the additional deposits can settle at the bottom of the river, affecting the vegetation. The extra material can also disturb oxygen levels and suffocate the fish.

“Right now, we’ve not seen any kind of mortality from fish kills or anything like that, but it is a concern,” Chandler said.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is working with Hi-Crush, where the incident originated, to clean up some of the runoff near the site.

“They’re already starting to remove deposits, not necessarily in the stream channel at this point, but other areas that are more easily accessible,” said Jim Devlin, stormwater specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

When they move farther downstream, they may need to use machines to remove the sediment, which could further disturb sensitive natural areas.

“Once they’re done with that, it would involve vegetative re-establishment and stabilization,” Devlin said.

Water is being tested to see if there were chemicals, metals or oil released into the river, which would then call for a different cleanup effort. The results of the water tests could come back in about a week.

Devlin said Hi-Crush seems willing to do whatever it takes.

“They did this lifesaving maneuver and they fully understood what the ramifications would be. And I think they’re all in for this restoration,” Devlin said.

For now, refuge staff members can only wait and see what will happen next.

“Hopefully, we can get through this and have some learning lessons for the future and try to improve response and a way to avoid this in the future,” Chandler said.

Refuge officials believe the deposits will eventually make their way out to the Mississippi River near Perrot State Park. When that will happen or how much of the material in the water will rush out is unknown at this point.