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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Zahra Hirji, InsideClimate News

How much dangerous dust is being kicked into the air from the mounds of frac sand hauled daily across the southern Minnesota town of Winona?

Looking for answers, the community got the state to install in January a pollution monitor for crystalline silica, or frac sand — the first in Minnesota not financed by industry. Located on a building above a major intersection for sand trucks bound for fracking fields, it’s been collecting data ever since.

The state Pollution Control Agency (PCA) said the data would be released in March.

But because of delays in finding a lab to process all of it, Winonans aren’t any closer to answering their question.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Jane Cowgill, co-founder of the Winona-based grass-roots group Citizens Against Silica Mining. “You can see sand blowing around in the air.”

A main problem is that there are no labs in Minnesota that handle this type of analysis — a sign of how quickly the Midwest frac sand industry has exploded in recent years to serve America’s oil and gas drilling boom.

Instead, the PCA must choose from a handful of labs that offer to take on the project. There are only about a dozen capable in the United States. “We’re going to push to get moving quickly. … I don’t have a firm timeline,” said Frank Kohlasch, manager of the air assessment section of the PCA, which paid for the monitors and is charged with data collection and analysis.

Minnesota and its neighbor Wisconsin hold vast reservoirs of pure silica sand, a necessary ingredient in the fracking process that has been implicated in silicosis, a lung disease. The blasted sand creates and holds open cracks in dense rock formations to releases oil or gas. It can take up to 10,000 tons of sand to frack a single well during its lifetime, and there are roughly 50 new wells being drilled in the United States every day.

The number of sand mines, processing, and transport facilities between the two states has swelled in recent years to more than 100, from less than 20 in 2010. In Winona each day about 100 trucks carry thousands of tons of sand across the college town. The sand is then loaded onto rail or barge and sent to North Dakota and other states.

“The demand for sand is going up and up and up. It’s a gold rush,” Cowgill said.

Silica dust exposure kills hundreds of industrial sand workers a year, according to federal data, but there is little data tracking the threat it poses to nearby communities. What data there is comes from industry.

In Wisconsin, local governments tried to monitor airborne silica sand, but they’ve sustained several setbacks due to government and industry pushback.

Winona is the first local government in the nation to monitor air pollution that may be escaping from the sand piles trucked through town. Approved by Winona’s City Council last fall after concerns were raised about unknown health effects, the vote was hailed as a victory for activists regionally.

Two air pollution sensors were installed. The most critical one measures concentrations of particulate matter up to 4 micrometers in diameter, or PM 4, 20 times smaller than a grain of beach sand and small enough to penetrate lung tissue and enter the bloodstream. The dust accumulates in the monitor’s filter and samples get collected over a 24-hour period every six days. Eventually, they’ll be sent to a special lab for what is called “speciation” analysis to determine how much of the material is frac sand.

The other monitor measures finer PM 2.5 particles emitted not just from frac sand but car emissions and other industries. This data is collected hourly and requires little extra analysis. It’s already available on the MPCA’s Air Quality Index website. According to Kohlasch of the state pollution control agency, Winona’s hourly 2.5 PM data does not appear abnormal.

Photo: danielfoster437 via Flickr

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Many Democrats are getting nervous about the upcoming presidential election. Ominous, extensively reported articles by two of the best in the business—the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin and The Atlantic's Barton Gellman—outline Boss Trump's plot to keep control of the White House in 2021 no matter how the American people vote.
Trump is hardly making a secret of it. He's pointedly refused to commit to "a peaceful transfer of power."

"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," is how he answered the question. He added that after we "get rid of the ballots"—presumably mail-in ballots he's been whining about for weeks--"there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."

Of course, Trump himself has always voted by mail, but then brazen hypocrisy is his standard operating mode. If you haven't noticed, he also lies a lot. Without prevaricating, boasting, and bitching, he'd be mute. And even then, he'd still have Twitter. He recently tweeted that the winner "may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED" because mail-in ballots make it a "RIGGED ELECTION in waiting."
Gellman gets this part exactly right in The Atlantic: "Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.
"Trump's invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before."
No, we haven't. However, it's important to remember that Trump makes threats and promises almost daily that never happen. Remember that gigantic border wall Mexico was going to pay for? Trump has built exactly five miles of the fool thing, leaving roughly two thousand to go.
His brilliant cheaper, better health care plan? Non-existent.
On Labor Day, Boss Trump boasted of his unparalleled success in strong-arming Japan into building new auto-manufacturing plants. "They're being built in Ohio, they're being built in South Carolina, North Carolina, they're being built all over and expanded at a level that we've never seen before."
Not a word of that is true. Two new plants, one German, another Swedish have opened in South Carolina, but construction began before Trump took office. Auto industry investment during Barack Obama's second term far exceeded Trump's. His version is sheer make-believe.
But back to the GOP scheme to steal the election.
First, it's clear that even Trump understands that he has virtually no chance of winning the national popular vote. He's been polling in the low 40s, with no sign of change. To have any chance of prevailing in the Electoral College, he's got to do the electoral equivalent of drawing to an inside straight all over again—winning a half-dozen so-called battleground states where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by the narrowest of margins.
At this writing, that looks highly unlikely. The latest polling in must-win Pennsylvania, for example, shows Trump trailing Joe Biden by nine points. That's a landslide. Trump's down ten in Wisconsin, eight in Michigan. And so on.
So spare me the screeching emails in ALL CAPS, OK? Polls were actually quite accurate in 2016. Trump narrowly defeated the odds. It can happen. But he's in far worse shape this time. Furthermore, early voting turnout is very high, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans two to one.
Hence, The Atlantic reports, "Trump's state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states."
The plan is clear. Because more Democrats than Republicans are choosing mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic, Trump hopes to prevent those ballots from being counted. Assuming he'll have a narrow "swing state" lead on election night, he'll declare victory and start filing lawsuits. "The red mirage," some Democrats call it.
"As a result," Toobin writes, "the aftermath of the 2020 election has the potential to make 2000 look like a mere skirmish." With Trump in the White House urging armed militias to take to the street.
Mail-in votes take a long time to count. Things could definitely get crazy.
True, but filing a lawsuit to halt a Florida recount was one thing. Filing suits against a half dozen states to prevent votes from being counted at all is quite another. Public reaction would be strong. Also, winning such lawsuits requires serious evidence of fraud. Trumpian bluster ain't evidence.
The Atlantic reports that GOP-controlled state legislatures are thinking about sending Trumpist delegations to the Electoral College regardless of the popular vote winner—theoretically constitutional but currently illegal.
Fat chance. If that's the best they've got, they've got nothing.
Anyway, here's the answer: Vote early, and in person*.

[Editor's note: In some states, receiving an absentee ballot means that a voter can no longer vote in person* or may have to surrender the absentee ballot, including the envelope in which it arrived, at their polling place. Please check with your local election authorities.]