CanWhite Sands Corp. (“CWS”), an Alberta based company, is the latest company proposing to get into the silica sand mining business in Manitoba and has now filed an Environment Act Proposal (EAP) with the Province of Manitoba for its processing facility.

CWS has already acquired the Mineral Rights to some 87,000 hectares of land in Southeastern Manitoba and is proposing to extract 1.3 million tonnes of silica sand a year, plus construct a processing plant and rail transload facility in Vivian, Manitoba to move the processed frac sand by rail to markets throughout North America.

CWS has stated that the high purity silica sand in Southwestern Manitoba will be used for many commercial applications but they admitted in an Investors Presentation in January of 2019 that the primary market for their silica sand will be the fracking industry.

It makes no sense that the CWS is pursuing this proposed development project at a time when shale oil and gas exploration has all but dried up, resulting in a huge glut of processed high grade silica frac sand sitting idle in a number long established frac sand mine operations in the USA. I assume people behind CWS are predicting an uptick in the frac sand market in the next few years, but many experts in the field do not share the same optimistic outlook.

In addition to the poor economic conditions, there are a number of possible environmental and health issues raised by a group of alarmed citizens living in the region. They are concerned for the health of CWS workers and those living near the proposed mine and processing facility. Long term exposure to fine particulates of silica sand can lead to silicosis, a very debilitating lung disease with no cure. Children and seniors are particularly at risk.

People in the region are also concerned about the long-term impact on the entire under water aquifer that is relied upon for potable drinking water in the region. This is a valid concern. CWS noted in its recently filed EAP that only 15 percent of what they extract some 200 feet below the surface will be silica sand, the remaining 85 percent will be potable water from the aquifer that supplies drinking water for all of Southeastern Manitoba. As stated, CWS will be producing 1.3 million tonnes of processed silica sand a year which means 7.7 million cubic meter of water will also be extracted yearly from the aquifer to produce the 1. 3 million tonnes of processed silica sand.

To put this in perspective, the average Canadian uses 329 litres of water a day, thus 7.7 million cubic meters of potable water per year would serve a population 64,121 people per year, that is almost the combined population of Brandon and Steinbach based on average water consumption per person per year.

Once all the sand and water is pumped out of the ground, this water will become acidic and will contain arsenic. It is likely to be dumped into the Brokenhead River. It is anyones guess how enormous volumes of water withdrawal will affect the sustainable recharge rate of this aquifer. The Province does not analyze nor do they collect accurate data on the cumulative annual use of water from this aquifer on a region wide basis.

However, based on a 2005 study by Woodbury and Kennedy, hydro-geologists from the University of Manitoba, the sustainable recharge rate of the aquifer would be reached, based on population projections, by 2025. The volume of water withdrawn by the proposed CWS project will exceed the ability of this aquifer to recharge itself annually.

The silica sand extraction mining method that CWS is seeking provincial approval for is also a concern—it is an unproven technique in the silica sand mining industry. It entails drilling hundreds of bore holes a year, over the life span of the project, at a depth of approximately 200 feet. Pipes are then inserted into the bore holes and compressed air shot through to create a sand slurry, which then can be sucked up to the surface through the bore hole.

The problem with this unproven extraction technique is what is left behind. Once the silica sand has been extracted, along with very large volume of potable water, there will be a series of underground voids or caverns that will be created that could very well collapse into the aquifer from the weight of the surface sitting atop of these series of voids.

CWS indicates in its EAP that the life of the proposed development is 24 years. Thousands of bore holes and voids will be created during this period. Under the Manitoba Mines and Minerals Act there is no requirement for CWS to seal bore holes with grout, as is the case for water wells that have been abandoned.

For its part, the Pallister government has allowed CWS, on July 16, 2020, to submit an EAP for approval under the Manitoba Environment Act (the Act). It will then allow CWS to submit a separate EAP for the silica sand mine and proposed extraction method.

By allowing CWS to first submit an EAP for its processing facility, it is literally putting the cart before the horse. It’s like buying a new car without an engine and having the dealership tell you they will install the engine latter.

At the very least the Province should have insisted that CWS first submit an EAP for its proposed silica sand extraction before licencing the processing facitlity.

It should be noted that if  CWS is successful, it will have cleared the provincial regulatory hurdles, making it easier for them to attract investors to raise the capital necessary for the project to proceed.

This proposed development project needs to be reviewed and assessed for all its impacts under one assessment process under the Act and realistically it should be a public review process undertaken by the Clean Environment Commission, where independent experts can be brought in to scrutinize all the information provided by CWS respecting this proposed development project.

Many thanks to Don Sullivan from “What The Frack Manitoba” for submitting this post.