BC-Sand-Mine-Parkinson

A mine proposed in B.C. would supply the fracking industry —  by way of 55,000 truck trips per year

As B.C.’s LNG industry heats up, a company is proposing to mine silica sand — used in fracking — in B.C.’s interior forests. Here’s what you need to know

When you think of B.C.’s central interior forests, you probably picture swaths of trees stretching over hills and up mountains, punctuated by rivers and the occasional lake. 

You probably don’t think of sand.

But if a proposal working its way through the B.C. environmental assessment process is approved, a special type of sand used in hydraulic fracturing for gas — commonly known as fracking — will be extracted from a forest near Bear Lake, north of Prince George. The sand would be trucked to B.C.’s northeast, where a fracking boom is poised to begin to supply the province’s new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export industry. 

Vitreo Minerals, a sand and gravel supplier based in Golden, B.C., proposes to build an open-pit mine and two processing facilities that could produce two million tonnes of frac sand per year for up to 20 years. The Angus mine, which has the potential to supply up to 400 fracking wells per year, would be B.C.’s only operating frac sand mine. 

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The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.

The project will involve building new access roads through the forest, clearing land for the mine and its crushing and drying facilities and constructing a new transmission line and natural gas pipeline to power the operation, according to a project description submitted to the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office. 

“We propose to essentially mine — by drilling and blasting in a very conventional-looking quarry — a rock known as quartz arenite, a very high-purity silica-rich rock,” Vitreo Minerals CEO Scott Broughton explained during a recent project information session hosted by the assessment office. “It actually has the perfect-size sand grains that we’re looking for to produce proppant [frac sand] for the oil and gas industry.”

But environmental groups say the mine, which would be located in the Fraser River watershed, poses risks to nearby communities, water, local wildlife and the environment.

Sven Biggs, the Canadian oil and gas programs director for Stand.Earth, said the non-profit group will be keeping tabs on any long-term expansion plans for the frac sand industry in B.C. “If the plan really is to produce enough silica in British Columbia to support the LNG industry here in B.C. and Alberta, those would be very large operations and could have a much larger footprint than this initial project,” he told The Narwhal.

What is frac sand, exactly? And what’s the big deal with the Angus project? 

Why does the LNG industry need silica sand?

B.C.’s fracking operations will soon greatly expand as Canada’s first LNG export project, the LNG Canada plant in Kitimat, prepares to produce 14 million tonnes of LNG annually starting in 2025. The nearby Cedar LNG plant, which expects to begin operations in 2028, will produce another three million tonnes of LNG per year. And the proposed Ksi Lisims LNG project, near the Alaska border, would add another 12 million tonnes to B.C.’s total LNG production.

To extract gas to ship to LNG plants, fracking operations need silica sand — lots of it. Exact figures are difficult to obtain but each fracked well uses an estimated 5,000 tonnes to 9,000 tonnes of frac sand, known in the industry as proppant. The Wilderness Committee estimates LNG Canada alone will require 18,000 additional fracking wells to supply gas that will be liquefied for transport to overseas markets.

Frac sand is mixed with fracking fluid — a blend of water and chemicals — and pumped into the shale deposits that hold the gas. After the fluid fractures the rock, the sand helps hold the fractures open, freeing the gas.

An aerial view of Wisconsin Proppants frac sand mine near Hixton, Wisconsin
An aerial view of Wisconsin Proppants frac sand mine near Hixton, Wisconsin. Photo: Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance

The best frac sand is unweathered silica, produced by crushing and processing quartz rock. Sand created through this process is jagged, allowing it to grip the rock and hold it open. Most frac sand currently used in B.C. is imported by rail from the United States, where Wisconsin is a major producer.

Are there benefits to producing silica sand in B.C.?

Vitreo Minerals sees an opportunity to produce high-quality frac sand much closer to the B.C. fracking operations where it will be used. 

If approved, the Angus project will be the first mining operation in Western Canada to produce top-quality silica sand close to the Montney formation in northeast B.C. and Alberta, which contains vast natural gas reserves. 

A map illustrating the location of the Angus project, north of Prince George along Highway 97. The proposed sand mine is a roughly four hour drive from Fort St John, the main hub of fracking operations on the B.C. side of the Montney formation, a shale deposit rich in natural gas
If approved, the Angus project would send as much as two million tonnes of silica sand per year to gas wells in the Montney formation. The sand would be trucked up Highway 97 by around 55,000 trucks per year. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

“The Montney shale deposit is the largest carbon bomb in Canada, the sixth largest in the world,” Biggs said. “If the plans to build LNG and extract all of that gas go ahead, we are going to pass the threshold of a safe climate … and that’s why this mine is being proposed, to help facilitate a huge expansion in fracking to supply LNG terminals.”

Producing frac sand in B.C. will bring economic benefits for the province, the company states in its project description.

According to Vitreo Minerals, 150 people would be employed during the project’s construction phase while the mine would support 140 permanent jobs once operational. The positions would all be filled by local workers, the company states.

However, a technical advisor with the environmental assessment office has raised concerns about Vitreo’s estimates as well as its commitment to local hiring, suggesting the project could require specialized workers from elsewhere in B.C. or Canada. That might require the company to build a work camp for the project.

“The introduction of work camps and an influx of temporary labourers can disproportionately affect specific demographic groups, notably women and First Nations peoples,” a summary of the technical advisor’s comments states. 

During the recent information session, Broughton said he was confident the project would employ local workers, contractors and First Nations.

“We clearly prefer that this project — and we feel confident that we can do this — hire local workers and First Nations workers to operate this mine.”

Vitreo Minerals did not respond to an interview request from The Narwhal.

Is acid-rock drainage a concern? 

Creating a new mine and processing infrastructure will add to the upstream — and often overlooked — impacts of B.C.’s new LNG export industry. 

During a presentation to the local government of the Fraser Fort George regional district last November, Broughton described the activities at the proposed Angus project as “simple processing.”

“There’s no chemistry. There’s no heat. There is nothing nasty,” he said. “This is just a physical process, and it will look a lot like a conventional sand and gravel operation to many people.”

But Wilderness Committee climate campaigner Peter McCartney disagrees. 

“There’s absolutely nasty stuff buried underground that you are disturbing anytime you do mining,” McCartney told The Narwhal. “I think what he’s implying is that they’re not chemically extracting minerals, which is true, but there are still lots of nasty things like heavy metals and that acidity that’s under there. There’s all sorts of stuff that you don’t want coming from underground into the environment that isn’t necessarily a chemical additive — it’s just naturally occurring.”

When naturally occuring materials in rocks, including sulphur-bearing materials, are exposed to oxygen, moisture and bacteria, they can create acid-rock leaching, which poses a significant threat to groundwater. The company says its geochemistry studies at the Angus site suggest the rock that would be mined and processed are “not potentially acid generating and have limited potential for metal leaching.”

Is silica dust from frac sand harmful? 

During an early engagement process, communities and First Nations near the proposed mine site raised concerns about silica dust, a known carcinogen that can cause a variety of respiratory problems, including silicosis, a lung disease. 

Vitreo states the proposed sand plant and finishing plant will not produce any silica dust and says a dust mitigation and monitoring plan will be developed for the mine and surrounding site. 

Once the mine is operational, approximately six trucks every hour — more than 50,000 trucks annually — will travel along Highway 97 transporting proppant to markets in northeast B.C., according to the company. 

McCartney said each truckload creates an opportunity for silica dust to escape. 

“Anytime a big wind picks up, it’s going to be blowing silica sand out of that mine and onto anybody in the vicinity,” he said. “They can mitigate that, but if you’ve ever tried to put up a tarp in the middle of a windstorm, it’s not easy … the number one concern that we hear from communities that are in proximity to these frac sand mines is ‘how is this going to affect my health [and] the air quality in our community?’ ”

Nearby surface water would be used to suppress dust and process the mined material into sand, according to the recent information session. The company says it may also use groundwater at the Angus sand plant. It began studying potential groundwater impacts in 2022.

Would the silica sand mine affect wildlife?

The Angus project could affect up to 76 species of concern, including 15 listed on the federal Species At Risk Act or B.C.’s red list, which includes species considered threatened, endangered or extirpated. 

Pictured is the area near where the Angus project would be built. It is an open meadow nestled in rolling, forested hills. The area has obviously been logged, there are logging roads visible in the background and downed, weathered logs peak out from the meadow greenery.
The Angus project would be built in a previously logged, forested area east of Bear Lake and south of Mount Averil. Photo: Vitreo Minerals

Surveys conducted by the company in 2022 confirmed the presence of eight provincially or federally listed species, including the olive-sided flycatcher, common nighthawk, rusty blackbird, barn swallow, horned grebe, western toad, grizzly bear and wolverine. 

The project is located within the range of a grizzly bear population of moderate conservation concern.

What about greenhouse gas emissions? 

Creating a new mine and processing infrastructure will add to the upstream — and often overlooked — impacts of B.C.’s new LNG export industry. 

Vitreo says the project will help offset emissions from transporting frac sand from the U.S. 

An aerial view of the LNG Canada liquified natural gas production facility add export terminal with the inlet in the background and snow capped mountains beyond
LNG Canada’s export facility near Kitimat is set to begin producing 14 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas per year in 2025. Supplying the facility will require thousands of new fracking wells, each of which uses several tonnes of frac sand – the kind that Vitreo Minerals is proposing to produce at the Angus project. Photo: Marty Clemens / The Narwhal

However, the company’s project description says building the mine will create 9,900 tonnes of carbon emissions. Once it’s operating, the mine will emit 60,860 tonnes of carbon per year, most from natural gas to power the facility that finishes drying the frac sand. Annual operating emissions from the Angus project would equal the yearly emissions of 14,485 passenger vehicles.

The project’s other major emissions will come from haul trucks and other traffic, the description says. Fugitive dust, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide will also be produced as a result of mining operations.

The finishing plant’s emission intensity means it will be subject to B.C.’s greenhouse gas emission reporting regulation.

The project’s impact on B.C.’s ability to meet its emission-reduction targets will be part of the company’s environmental assessment application, the document states.

How does the project affect First Nations?

The Angus project is located on the traditional territories of the McLeod Lake Indian Band and West Moberly First Nations. Both are taking part in the environmental assessment process and have participated in some preliminary fieldwork, according to the company. 

The environmental assessment office also notified three nearby First Nations — Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, Nak’azdli Whut’en and Nazko First Nation — about the project. According to the detailed project description, Nak’azdli Whut’en told the company by phone before the start of the engagement process they “do not support fracking and therefore will not support the project.” Of the three, only the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation is officially participating in the environmental assessment process.

Under B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Act, companies proposing major projects are required to reach “consensus” with participating First Nations at key stages of the process. It’s a relatively new requirement that has so far been applied to about 20 projects, according to the Environment Ministry.

If consensus can’t be reached, participating First Nations can provide a “notice of consent or lack of consent” at the end of the assessment process, according to the assessment office. 

McLeod Lake Indian Band declined to comment on the project. Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, Nak’azdli Whut’en and West Moberly First Nations did not respond to interview requests before publication time.

What happens next with the frac sand mine project?

The Angus project is “one of the first, if not the first, silica sand mine to ever go through the environmental assessment process” in B.C., according to an email from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

The environmental assessment office is seeking public feedback on its draft environmental assessment plan for the Angus project until June 27. The office expects to issue an order in August that will allow Vitreo Minerals to begin developing its formal application for an environmental assessment certificate.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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