Drive east from Winnipeg’s Transcona neighbourhood, past the industrial tract, the barley mill and the perimeter highway. Follow the double-lane highway through open field after open field. You’ll pass through Dugald, Anola and Vivian, quiet farming towns of just a few thousand total residents. A handful of houses, cattle farms, grain elevators and dilapidated barns punctuate the otherwise uniform landscape.

For four generations, the Mustard family have called this region home. But with a new neighbour — mining company Sio Silica — threatening their once-peaceful way of life, Josh and Georgina Mustard, along with their eight kids, two Scandinavian shepherds and one black cat, have begun to ask themselves impossible questions: “Why should we stay here? And where would we go?”

Wesley (left), Hunter, Callie, Josh, and Georgina Mustard wear sweaters as they walk through the snow in front of their property near Vivian, Manitoba
Wesley, Hunter, Callie, Josh and Georgina Mustard have lived in southeastern Manitoba all their lives. They’re fighting the mine they fear will force them to leave home. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

The hamlet of Vivian in southeastern Manitoba has become ground zero in the fervent debate over the Prairie province’s place in a green economy. On one side: a Calgary-based junior mining company hoping to tap the region’s rare, pure silica sand resource — a key raw material for an increasingly green future, buried in an underground aquifer. On the other: an organized group of Manitobans who fear their drinking water — and their way of life — hang in the balance.

This debate is a microcosm for a tension poised to play out many times over as Canada, and the world, moves toward a clean energy future dependent on rapidly expanded electrification. Silica sand is increasingly seen by governments around the world as an essential component of clean energy technologies and has been dubbed a “critical mineral” by the European Union, Australia and Japan. By 2026, the International Energy Agency forecasts global renewable electricity capacity will rise more than 60 per cent over 2020 levels, meaning more critical minerals will be needed than ever before.

But meeting that demand requires more mining, and more debate over how to balance it with a growing pressure to protect the land.

Georgina Mustard looks across the field near Vivian, Manitoba where Sio Silica has begun exploratory drilling for their proposed silica sand mine
Georgina Mustard gazes across the clearing adjacent to her family’s land where Sio Silica will build and operate a 24/7 sand processing facility in the coming year. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

In the seven-year debate playing out in southeastern Manitoba, trust has deteriorated on both sides, as residents mount unrelenting opposition to a company determined to forge ahead. Countless attempts to stop Sio Silica’s proposed mine have failed, but at last the final battleground has been reached: in stuffy community halls across the region, Manitoba’s clean environment commission has been tasked with reviewing the company’s mining proposal before an environmental licence is granted.

Should the Vivian Sands project be licensed, Sio Silica believes wholeheartedly their mine will be minimally invasive and maximally effective for planting an advanced manufacturing industry on Manitoba soil, one that processes what it calls “the primary invisible ingredient that keeps our society running.” But residents like the Mustard family remain unconvinced the company can extract the sand without permanently damaging the freshwater aquifer they drink from everyday.

Mining silica sand from southern Manitoba

On a sunny March afternoon, Josh and Georgina hop into their blue pickup truck and drive around a tangle of aspen and birch trees on the 116 acres of land Josh bought from his mother several years ago.

“Manitoba is home,” Josh says.

His father was a CN rail worker, his mother is a nurse. The family settled in Vivian in the 1950s, found good work, planted roots and never left. He’s the oldest of 13 children, many of whom still live in the area. He’s spent his life working in industry, doing carpentry and other trade work for energy projects all over the country.

The quiet country life has always just felt comfortable to Josh.

“I’ve lived in big cities and it’s got a certain niche to it, there’s nothing wrong with it, but I just prefer this way of living because I’m used to it, you know,” he says. “It’s tranquil.”

A deer pauses in the bush on the Mustard family property near Vivian, Manitoba
The Mustards have seen an increase in deer and bears on their land since Sio Silica moved in next door. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Josh and Georgina’s children — who range in age from two to 23 — were all raised here. The family used to keep cattle and a few horses. In the summers, they grow food in their garden. Their children go to school, tutoring, music classes and sports nearby, and play in the woods and fields surrounding their home. The family love evening bonfires and watching the stars, hearing little but the crackling of logs and the whistle of the occasional passing train.

Behind the yard, an open field butts up against a thicket of bush. The Mustards push through the undisturbed, thigh-high snow, then duck under barbed wire and navigate the tangle of tree branches leading to the edge of their property line. The bush gives way to a high ridgeline and a large clearing dotted by tall, white piles of silica sand. The clearing is new. It was only a little more than a year ago that Sio Silica started chopping trees to make room for a 25-acre processing plant to dry, load and ship silica sand along the nearby CN rail tracks. Within the next year there will be 40-foot sand silos, a rail loop and stockpiles of wet silica sand.

According to the Mustards, no one told them what to expect until they started hearing the unmistakable sounds of tree clearing just next door. One of their sons, 12-year-old Ryder, mourns the loss of a favourite natural playground. The family grit their teeth through days of incessant grinding. Though work on the site has paused through the winter, the Mustards are worried about what comes next.

Sio Silica has spent the better part of the last five years planning a mining project that will see them drill thousands of wells on private and crown land across the region. Licensing the processing facility next to the Mustard’s property was the first step, along with exploratory drilling. If the mine is also approved, wells will extend deep past the limestone aquifer — where many residents, including the Mustards, draw their water — and into the sandstone below. From there, the company plans to extract 1.36 million tonnes of silica sand each year, operating 24/7, for at least 24 years.

All of that sand will be piped across the farmland to the processing plant behind the Mustard’s house and sent to market in Canada, the United States and beyond. 

An aerial view of land clear cut for a silica sand processing facility and accompanying rail loop near Vivian, Manitoba
The processing site and rail loop along the edge of the Mustard family’s land. The company plans to build and operate the facility whether or not the licence for their mining process is approved. Photo: Gordon Goldsborough / Our Line in the Sand Manitoba

“It’s just like a bad nightmare,” Georgina Mustard says. 

Like many of her neighbours, Georgina is afraid Sio Silica’s mining will contaminate their precious source of drinking water, or that the extra load on the aquifer will cause her well to run dry. She worries, too, about airborne sand and the health risks silica dust can pose. But most importantly, she says, she worries about her kids.

“There’s so many questions that our kids are asking us that we don’t have answers for: ‘Where are we going to move? Am I going to have to switch schools and not see my friends?’ ” she says. 

“We’ve set ourselves up here pretty decently. Our three oldest kids have permanent full-time jobs, the next one is in Grade 10 in high school. Are we going to have to uproot her from that and her relationships?”

Already, a few of their friends have moved away, fearing their water, their air and their tranquility will be forever changed by the imposing mine. The Mustards wonder whether they’ll be the next to go.

“It’s just like a bad nightmare.” Georgina Mustard
Georgina and Josh Mustard’s eight children worry their lives will be uprooted if the family has to move away from the proposed silica sand mine.
Framed photos of the eight Mustard children hang, from oldest to youngest, on the doorway between the living room and kitchen in their home near Vivian, Manitoba

Green futures need new resources — including silica sand

The conflict facing residents of southeastern Manitoba is one that will be played out in rural and remote communities across the country, as the world moves toward a low-carbon future with a significant demand for mineral resources like silica sand. Those resources have to come from somewhere.

“Silica sand is going to be an essential component in many of the digital components that we will use in the future for automobiles, appliances and manufacturing,” MaryAnn Mihychuk, president of the Manitoba Prospectors and Developers Association, explains.

MaryAnn Mihychuk, wearing pink, speaks to two people at an event in 2019
Former local, provincial and federal politician MaryAnn Mihychuk believes in the continuous growth of the mineral sector. But she believes governments need to step in to regulate and monitor the industry’s environmental impacts. Photo: Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press

Right now, the global market for silica sand is worth about $11 billion, Mihychuk says. By 2029, it’s expected to nearly double, to $19 billion.

“As we move away from petroleum products, that demand for silica is growing enormously,” she says. “The need to find environmentally sensitive, properly managed projects is going to be very high.”

According to the United Nations, sand is already the second-most exploited resource in the world, surpassed only by water. An estimated 50 billion tonnes are used each year in everything from concrete, solar panels, glass and even land reclamation. Due to a lack of regulation in the global sand-extraction industry, demand is outpacing natural replenishment, and the United Nations predicts a crisis is looming. Already the escalating need for sand has caused coastline erosion, ecosystem disruption, air pollution, aquifer contamination and threats to biodiversity across the globe. Yet the demand grows.

An Anola, Manitoba resident holds an iPhone in a pink case, showcasing a photo of a silica sand pile left uncovered by Sio Silica during exploratory drilling in October 2020
A resident shows a dated photo of a pile of uncovered silica sand from a Sio Silica test drill. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Silica sand — particularly the grains mined in North America — is typically found inland, deep under the earth’s surface, left behind by ancient glacier movements. In almost all cases, silica sand is mined using an open-pit or dredging method, effectively digging large holes to remove sand or scooping it from lake and river beds.

Right now, Canada imports most of its sand from Wisconsin, where nearby residents have expressed concerns for the local environment and their health. They’re not alone in their concerns. One Minnesota county banned silica sand mining, while the country’s last beach-sand mine, in California, closed in 2020. Countries like Malaysia and Cambodia have banned sand exports entirely.

That’s left gaps in the international market, and Sio Silica is positioned to not only capitalize on a global need for silica sand, but also on the growing need for advanced manufacturing that uses it — including for solar panels.

Sio Silica CEO Feisal Somji (centre) sits with the company's legal team and executives during hearings over their proposed sand mining project in southeastern Manitoba
Feisal Somji (centre-left) and Brent Bullen (centre-right) are the faces behind Sio Silica. Both believe their proposed mine will elevate not only Manitoba’s place in the green economy — but Canada’s too. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

Sio Silica’s chief operating officer Brent Bullen says the company presented a technical paper in Europe on the benefits of Manitoba’s sand, their mining process and their plan to bring it to market. That presentation attracted the attention of one of the largest solar-glass manufacturers in the world, RCT Solutions.

The company proposed a $3-billion, 700-acre solar glass plant in southern Manitoba, using sand produced by the Sio Silica mine. The plant would employ more than 8,000 people and generate 10 gigawatts of power per year, enough, according to one estimate, to power 7.5 million homes.

According to Bullen, it’s just one of a number of opportunities to bring new players into the province. Manitoba’s access to renewable hydro power and railway infrastructure, Bullen says, make it the perfect home for new silica manufacturing.

The Manitoba government has been pushing for greater investment in mining in recent years, particularly of critical minerals. And Sio Silica’s team has been lobbying the federal government to pay closer attention to the value of silica sand as a critical mineral.

“We wanted the federal government to understand what Manitoba has as a resource on the world stage, because we felt we were lost debating the value of this in a singular [rural municipality] when this is a project of national interest,” Bullen says. “The world recognizes the importance of these resources sitting right in Manitoba.”

He sees the project in Manitoba as more than just a mine. “It is a Canadian opportunity,” he says, and he also sees it as part of the global push to decarbonize and combat climate change.

Three weeks of Manitoba environmental hearings to decide fate of Sio Silica mine

The Anola Community Club, tucked just off Highway 15, has come alive on a Saturday morning in March. Nearly 100 people pack into neat rows of plastic chairs in the hall to attend a special session of the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission hearing that will help decide the mine’s fate.

The room is energetic. Friends and neighbours mingle with local councillors, town reeves and Sio Silica company executives. Some arrive dressed in sharp suits. Others don hi-vis jackets and steel-toed boots. Over the course of the day, many take a turn speaking against the project.

A white pick up truck carries a yellow sign reading "Stop Sio Silica" outside the community club in Anola, Manitoba
Residents have mounted resistance to the Sio Silica mine for three years. So far, they say, no government agencies have given proper time to their complaints. Photo: Jordan Ross / The Carillon

Georgina Mustard is joined by three of her eight children and her mother-in-law, Rachel Mustard-Leonard. Each makes a passionate presentation to the commission, warning of the dangers of drilling into the aquifer, the perils of clear cutting sections of beloved forest, the risks of unseen silica dust in the air.

Even 12-year-old Ryder, dressed up in a crisp blue shirt and tie, tells the commissioners, “I don’t feel this is safe for my family.”

Under the provincial environment act, the commission is meant to give the public a voice in Manitoba’s environmental decision-making. If the public raise “valid concerns” about a project during the licensing process, the environment minister can ask the commission to hold public hearings so everyone involved can present evidence. The commission is then tasked with compiling recommendations for the minister, though none are legally binding.

The hearings have been tense. Residents have shown up in droves in opposition. The company has stressed the project’s safety, its small footprint and its importance to a burgeoning green energy economy. Experts have spent hours debating the finer geotechnical and hydrogeological points of the company’s plan. Residents have delivered remarks laden with emotion and urgency.

A southeastern Manitoba resident wearing a ball cap and short-sleeved shirt hands a document to a geological scientist during a clean environment commission hearing in Steinbach, Manitoba over a proposed silica sand mine
Some residents, like Ted Cole, showed up at each day of commission hearings, looking for opportunities to express their disapproval to the company and the commission. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

Over the course of the day, dozens rise to the microphone to make their perspectives known. Many, like the Mustards, are vehemently opposed. Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard (representing the Winnipeg suburb of River Heights) suggests it’s “very likely there will be significant problems,” stressing the mine should not go ahead without watershed management plans to ensure the aquifer is protected. Six Winnipeg high school students present on the potential risks to their futures.

“This could affect the people like me who call this area home,” one student says. “How can you take away our safety just to make money?”

But others are there in support of the mine, hoping the silica business will open the door for a green energy sector to take root in Manitoba.

“Vivian silica is the purest kind of silica in the world,” one resident says. “It would help us to move away from oil and gas, which is a huge topic these days.”

Others express cautious interest while emphasizing the need for government measures to hold the company accountable to its new neighbours.

“No one can say there’s never going to be a risk,” says one resident, who grew up in the northern mining community of Snow Lake. “But it’s more about managing those risks. We need to be fair when we’re looking at this project.”

Manitoba clean environment commission chair Jay Doering speaks at a hearing regarding Sio Silica's proposed sand mine
Clean Environment Commission chair Jay Doering shepherded residents, company executives, lawyers and experts through three weeks of tense environmental hearings. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

The commission, which declined to comment for this article, is expected to make its recommendations to the environment minister by early summer. The minister will then make a final decision on the project’s licence.

But for many residents, this hearing is the culmination of a multi-year fight for their water, their community and their way of life.

Mystery company raises eyebrows in southeastern Manitoba

Long before the hearings began, Sio Silica was moving through southeastern Manitoba in relative silence. Tangi Bell, one of the project’s most dedicated opponents, first found out about the mine thanks to a chance encounter with a neighbour in 2016.

Franz Felnhofer, a developer from the Rural Municipality of La Broquerie, had received council approval to subdivide his property but was later halted by a letter from Manitoba’s mines branch that stated he would need permission from an Alberta company that held mineral claims to the land.

Tangi Bell, wearing a grey sweater, stands in her home office next to a computer displaying the Our Line in the Sand facebook page
Tangi Bell, who lives in a bright, passive solar-powered home in Springfield, has spent countless hours researching the proposed mine. The more she learns, the more determined she is to fight back. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

“I couldn’t believe it,” Bell says one evening after a long day of hydrogeological debates in the hearings. “And then there was very little information. The mines branch wouldn’t say anything.”

Under Manitoba law, it’s not necessary for mining companies to warn landowners about mineral claims on their property until they start exploratory drilling, but any major developments need permission from the mineral rights holder.

At the time, residents knew nothing of the numbered Alberta company snapping up mineral claims in the region. When residents looked a little closer, they found the company had secured claims on more than 120,000 hectares of southern Manitoba land — nearly three times the size of Winnipeg. (The company now claims to have 390 claims totalling 85,000 hectares.)

Rumours about the region’s hidden cache of minerals began to swirl as the company started test drilling.

“There was talk about things that sparkle,” Bell says. “Things like diamonds, gold and lithium — nice little things — but I’m thinking 200 feet down below? That’s the aquifer.”

It would take two years before the true aim of the exploration was revealed. In that time, the numbered company changed its name to HD Minerals, amalgamated with another corporation called CanWhite Sands then renamed itself Sio Silica in 2022.

During that time, property owners grew anxious about the plans for their quiet farmland.

“The whole time we kept being promised we would have updates,” Bell says. “They didn’t release it for two and a half years.”

“Critical minerals are getting a green light … as if they don’t cause any issues or problems.”

Tangi Bell, Our Line in the Sand Manitoba

At a community meeting in April 2019, the company revealed they had been searching for silica sand all along. And they’d found it — lots of it — in the sandstone aquifer below the rural municipalities of La Broquerie, Ste. Anne, Hanover, Reynolds, Tache and Springfield.

Though the company told communities they would be looking at a new, environmentally sensitive extraction method, community leaders were immediately concerned about the water.

“Water is life,” Ste. Anne Reeve Paul Saindon told a local Steinbach news outlet. “If they’re going to mess with the aquifer and potentially mess with everybody’s water, that’s a big concern to everyone.”

Tangi Bell, president of Our Line in the Sand, points to a photo of uncovered silica sand on a computer in her home office in Springfield, Manitoba
Bell points to footprints in a pile of silica sand she alleges the company left uncovered for months, prompting her to reach out to health officials for fear of the impacts of silica dust. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Bell is president of Our Line in the Sand Manitoba, a group of concerned citizens opposing Sio Silica’s mine that started organizing in 2020. That summer, they held a protest on Centre Line Road, just south of the main highway near Vivian, where the company had left large piles of uncovered silica sand from their test drills. They brought a petition with more than 5,000 signatories against the mine to the Manitoba legislature that fall. They encouraged more than 1,000 community members to write to the provincial government opposing the mine facility during the licensing process. They’ve expressed fears about the threats to the water, the air and the community’s peaceful environment.

The mine proposal forges on.

A new way to mine silica sand

Sio Silica CEO Feisal Somji, a Calgarian businessman with an affinity for paisley dress shirts and a long history in the mining industry, is first to admit his company initially came to Manitoba in hopes of finding frac sand — sand used in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to extract oil or gas from deep below Earth’s surface.

“There’s been a lot of questions about us using our product as frac sand,” he said on the first day of hearings. “Yes, when I came to Manitoba, that is what I was looking for.”

Before Sio Silica, Somji had a successful career as a gold miner. He served as CEO of Vancouver-based global gold mining company Rio Alto, then as chair and director of Prize Mining, a copper and gold mining company working out of Mexico and British Columbia.

Feisal Somji, CEO of Sio Silica, arrives at the clean environment commission hearings in Steinbach, Manitoba wearing a black suit and white shirt
Feisal Somji wanted to be a pilot. He got his start flying bush planes over diamond mines in the North before pivoting to environmental management early in his career. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

The way he tells it, as he was wrapping up his latest gold project, a fellow Calgarian suggested he look for frac sand in the Prairies. He helped identify options in Alberta — which are now in production — before looking into Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“My wife was hopeful I’d find it in Saskatchewan, being a Sasky girl, but I ended up here,” Somji told the commission.

The company’s plans to sell sand to Canadian oil and gas producers changed after COVID-19 forced an industry slowdown in 2020.

“We had an opportunity to really look at the sand,” Somji explained. “What we found through the course of that year was it was a very unique sand deposit.”

According to the company, the silica sand lying under southeastern Manitoba is uniquely low in impurities like iron and phosphorus. That makes the sand easy to clean and transform into components for green technologies like batteries, semiconductors and solar panels — all crucial in the global push to expand clean energy.

Sio Silica executive Brent Bullen looks at a laptop with a company lawyer during a clean environment commission hearing over a proposed sand mine in Steinbach, Manitoba
Brent Bullen, Sio Silica’s chief operating officer, has taken the lead communicating with the public about the mine. He asserts the community is more supportive than the opposition suggests. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

Over a phone call after the hearings Bullen — a long-time oil and gas executive who has become the face of the company’s public operations — explains that 2020 discovery prompted “an immediate pivot” in their plans.

“This is too valuable of a resource to be used in an application like [oil and gas],” Bullen says. “This is a resource that answers all the needs of decarbonization and the environmental goals that the world is working towards.”

When Bullen joined the project in 2019, the company had found sand but hadn’t decided how they would extract it from 60 metres below the surface. Though most sand mining uses open-pit extraction, the depth and complexity of the sandstone aquifer ruled out that option.

Working with engineers, the company developed a now-patent-pending airlift strategy they believe will have a minimal environmental impact.

It’s a bit like blowing bubbles into a straw: using water well drilling rigs, the company plans to drill 16-inch-wide extraction wells down to the sandstone layer. They’ll then insert a series of tubes, pump compressed air into the sand and allow the pressure difference to suck a slurry of sand and water to the surface.

From there, the slurry will be piped back to the processing facility behind the Mustard family’s property to be dried, loaded onto train cars and transported to market. Leftover water will be treated with ultraviolet light and piped back into the aquifer.

Sio Silica has drilled more than 90 test wells since exploration began. The company believes the sand they’ve found will spark a green energy boom in southern Manitoba. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press
Sio Silica has drilled more than 90 test wells since exploration began. The company believes the sand they’ve found will spark a green energy boom in southern Manitoba.
Sand piles covered in white tarps and large metal containers mark the site where Sio Silica has begun exploratory drilling for its proposed silica sand mine near Vivian, Manitoba

Sio Silica plans to run the extraction from April to November each year (though they’ll drill wells and run the processing plant year-round) and operate up to 324 wells annually — about five to seven wells at a time. Each will be open for just a few days before being capped off and remediated.

The company is planning for at least 24 years of operation, but they’ve suggested the mine could ultimately be around for a century or more.

To Mihychuk with the mining association, Sio Silica’s choice to deviate from traditional mining methods is an innovation.

“The philosophy is continuous improvement,” she says. “It’s not unusual for us to be able to go into the ground, take out what is valuable, what is needed and then monitor and make sure that nothing negative is happening. Or at least try to anticipate the consequences and rectify the problem if one comes up.”

Because the proposed method is untested, many residents are unconvinced the science is as simple and effective as the company claims. But Bullen counters that airlifting has been used to drill water wells in freshwater resources, including in the rural municipality of Springfield, and mine ore around the world for years without causing adverse effects.

“Everything that we’ve done we truly believe will make us the most environmentally friendly process for producing silica like this in the world,” Bullen says.

Concerns about ‘coming in here and pulling sand out of people’s aquifer’

In this part of southeastern Manitoba, most of the land is zoned for farming. There are no big lakes, no fish habitats, no rare vegetation or endangered animals. There are a handful of protected bird species, but the company says it has factored them into its plans. The mines have a small footprint on the surface, the equipment is moveable and not expected to generate a significant amount of traffic, the sand itself will be shipped by rail — not truck. The silica sand piles, the company asserts, will be kept covered and contained so as to not contribute to air quality concerns.

Over the course of hearings, Sio Silica’s unique approach to extraction has been a source of fierce scientific debate. Much of that conflict has centred on the effects the mining process could have on the aquifer.

Georgina Mustard fills a glass of water at her kitchen sink
The Mustard family’s well dips into the limestone aquifer. Though they already filter their water, they worry mixing the aquifers and shattering the shale barrier will make their water unsafe to drink. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Below the surface of southeastern Manitoba lie a series of rock formations left behind by glacial movement millions of years ago. First, the Red River carbonate, a 160-foot layer of fractured limestone from which most residents draw their drinking water. Beneath the limestone there’s a layer of shale aquitard — basically a thin layer of brittle rock that separates the limestone aquifer from the sandstone aquifer below. Then there’s the sand.

To get there, they need to drill through the limestone and the shale aquifer — and that’s where things get complicated.

Over the three weeks of hearings, scientific experts representing residents, municipal leadership and Sio Silica have debated the impact drilling and extraction will have on the aquifers. Residents and municipalities fear the company’s plan to mine in a “room and pillar” approach — which leaves large cavities separated by pillars of undisturbed sandstone — will cause the overlying shale layer to collapse. Ultimately, even the company acknowledges the shale is brittle and collapse is nearly inevitable.

If the shale collapses, residents worry the water in the sandstone will mix with the water in the limestone aquifer, causing contamination of drinking water. Even more worrisome, the shale is made up of rock laden with heavy metals like manganese and iron. When exposed to oxygen, those rocks can leach metals, causing serious changes in water quality and acidity.

A well pipe covered in duct tape on the property of an Anola, Manitoba resident
Most residents in southeastern Manitoba have wells that sink at least 30 metres below the surface. Some worry their wells will run dry as the company draws water and sand from the aquifer. The company promises water level dips will be minor and short-lived. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

There are other concerns, too. Some worry all the underground “rooms” will cause the surface to sink (a process called subsidence), affecting drainage and land quality. Others worry contaminants from the drilling process will find their way into the aquifer. Some are concerned sand will be left in the open, causing invisibly fine particles to damage air quality. Silica dust can cause a severe lung disease called silicosis.

Dennis LeNeveu, a tweed-suit-wearing biophysicist and long-time opponent of the mine, whose career highlights include intervening on past energy projects and working as a research analyst for Atomic Energy Canada helping develop a theoretical model to bury nuclear fuel waste, believes it’s nearly impossible to drill so many times into the sand without water contamination.

“I thought, this is so stupid, somebody coming in here and pulling sand out of people’s aquifer. The sand is the aquifer. You’ll be laughed out,” he says.

But when he realized the project wasn’t slowing down, he says, “I started to get really scared. And I’ve been scared ever since.”

Dennis LeNeveu, wearing a tweed suit jacket, stands in a community room during a clean environment commission hearing over Sio Silica's proposed sand mine
Dennis LeNeveu — an independent scientist — believes the company’s plan will lead to acid rock drainage and contaminate the freshwater aquifer. The company says LeNeveu’s research amounts to misinformation. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

LeNeveu isn’t a geochemist or a hydrogeologist, but since 2016 he’s been called upon by several organizations to help prepare evidence on the environmental impacts of various energy projects. After being invited to support the fight against Sio Silica’s mine, LeNeveu has presented detailed arguments at every stage. He’s written to the federal government, the province, the company.

“I got drawn into this deeper and deeper because the science is so complex and it’s being pushed aside and simplified and glossed over by propaganda,” LeNeveu says. “I’m still being stonewalled.”

Sio Silica has responded to LeNeveu’s fears by making him out to be profoundly misinformed. He’s been discredited in the company’s messaging. They argue his experience in environmental reviews of past energy projects isn’t applicable. The scientists they’ve hired don’t believe the shale will cause chemical changes to the water, or that the intermixing of the aquifers will cause any deterioration in water quality and that the sandstone will remain solid even when dotted with cavities.

“Does that mean I’m right and they’re wrong?” LeNeveu asks. “There’s so many of them, maybe I am a complete nutcase.”

A resident wearing green clothing and glasses speaks during clean environment commission hearings in Steinbach, Manitoba
Residents like Janine Gibson, now Manitoba Green Party leader, believe Manitoba’s government is responsible for making sure mining companies like Sio Silica are accountable to the communities they work in. So far, residents feel no one will step in if something goes wrong. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

Even after the commission hearings wrapped, questions about the water remain unanswered, according to the project’s opponents.

“They want to get their licence first and then answer, and we think that’s wrong,” says Byron Williams, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Centre, representing Our Line in the Sand and the Manitoba Eco-Network.

“What is the state of sustainable water in the region? What are the cumulative effects of the project over the next four, twenty, hundred years? That hasn’t even been attempted. And we think that’s to the discredit of the department.”

Conflicting science on silica sand mine prompts debate

The tensions over which science to believe has formed the basis of the fight over Sio Silica’s future in the province. Many residents share the concerns brought forward by LeNeveu.

Georgina Mustard admits she isn’t a scientific expert, but she’s attended many meetings — including some of the clean environment commission hearings — and she feels the evidence presented by Our Line in the Sand and LeNeveu “just made sense.”

“I found it very frustrating that when there were people going up to speak against this project — they may not have a title behind their name but have been working in industries like this — it’s almost like they’re not even taking those people seriously,” she says.

Owing to his history working with energy companies, Josh knows accidents are part of the business. So far, he feels the company has stressed there’s no reason to worry about negative impacts, rather than developing plans to protect the community if something goes wrong.

“When it comes down to drinking water, there should be a safeguard in place,” Josh says. “Water is the basis of life. Once it’s destroyed, it stays destroyed.”

The project also stands to impact Indigenous communities. The nearest nation is Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, located approximately 50 kilometres northwest of the project; the Manitoba Métis Federation holds traditional harvesting rights in the project area; Peguis First Nation is less than a three-hour drive from the project.

The Manitoba Métis Federation, Peguis First Nation and Brokenhead Ojibway Nation submitted letters to the federal government in 2021 when Ottawa was considering whether it should assess the project (in December 2021 the federal natural resources minister decided not to review it). At the time, Peguis First Nation wrote it was concerned the operation would “have an impact on the waters and lands within our traditional territory and that it will infringe upon or adversely affect the exercise of our traditional and Treaty Rights.” Brokenhead Ojibway Nation wrote there was a “strong likelihood that toxins from the project and project runoff will end up in the Brokenhead River,” which runs through reserve lands and is used for harvesting and cultural and gathering purposes. The Manitoba Métis Federation wrote the project could have “profound and lasting impacts on the Manitoba Métis community.”

Peguis First Nation, Brokenhead Ojibway Nation and the Manitoba Métis Federation did not respond to requests for comment from The Narwhal. In March, Mike Sutherland, representing Peguis First Nation, told the commission the nation had made the “hard decision” to support the project, given that they had little reason to believe it would not be approved by the Manitoba government, and said Peguis would work to hold the project to account as “traditional environmental monitors” of the operations.

Bell, who has spent the last several years calling, writing and petitioning every government branch she can think of to put a stop — or at the very least a pause — on Sio Silica’s proposal, says the company and the government have all but ignored community fears.

“I’m not an academic, I’m not a technical wizard, so when this comes at a layperson — I don’t know if gaslighting is the right word, but you just start to doubt yourself,” Bell says.

Residents and municipal leaders have suggested the company incorporate safeguards like a strong water monitoring system and emergency management plans before a licence is granted — something the company says it plans to develop once the licence comes.

Mihychuk, who works closely with the government agencies in charge of mining, says the company will need to seek new approvals over the years to monitor the progress and impacts of the mines. Their investors will be sensitive to criticism, and the company will need the confidence of the public, their shareholders and the government to press on.

A hydrogeologist looks at his laptop while presenting evidence regarding Sio Silica's proposed sand mining technique during clean environment commission hearings in Steinbach, Manitoba
Scientific reviewers hired by community groups and municipal leaders have suggested aquifer mixing, limestone collapse and other negative impacts are a possibility with Sio Silica’s proposed extraction plan. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

Bullen maintains much of the community’s worries are founded on misinformation.

“You have to give proper weight to expert opinion because these are accredited individuals who are held to a standard,” he says, describing the scientists from AECOM, a nationally recognized infrastructure consulting firm, who were hired to complete an independent review of their proposal.

Pressed on the validity of concerns raised by the independent reviewers hired by the commission and community groups — most of whom are accredited scientists themselves — Bullen says some information “isn’t applicable to what we’re doing, and the understanding of it is incorrect.”

Asked where he believes the community’s vocal opposition to the mine stems from, Bullen says, “It comes from a very select few individuals that are well organized on social media.”

Sio Silica suggests community supports sand mine

In 2020, Sio Silica hired a lifelong Springfield community member and former town councillor to help them communicate their message to the public. Shandy Walls, a businesswoman responsible for founding the region’s chamber of commerce, is one of the project’s most vocal supporters. Of over 200 written submissions to the commission regarding the mine, hers and her husband’s were the only two to adamantly approve of Sio Silica’s plan.

In a phone interview, Walls explains she decided to help the company after realizing many of the community’s fears were going unanswered.

Walls considers her position an advantageous one. On one hand, she’s in tune with residents’ fears — she, too, wants to ensure the water she drinks is protected. But on the other, she’s sat in with Sio Silica’s scientific team over the past two years, and she believes they’re doing their best to find a solution that works.

“I have been asked once or twice, ‘How are you so confident?’ and that’s my answer. I have that advantage,” Walls says. “I believe professionals, I believe that accreditation matters, I believe in a code of ethics, so I believe these guys.”

Dozens of people sit in a hall at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, Manitoba to take part in a Clean Environment Commission hearing regarding Sio Silica's proposed sand mine
Though the company argues approximately 70 per cent of residents support their mine, those who showed up over the course of the three week hearings predominantly opposed the company’s plan. Photo: John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

Walls takes the same position as Bullen: the community at large, she says, is in support of the mine. (Though the public record contradicts this claim.)

Sio Silica has held close to 25 engagement events with stakeholders, Indigenous communities and members of the public, according to Bullen. The company also has an online “Ask Brent” portal that allows anyone to pose a question to either Bullen or the project manager Brent Belluk. They’ve taken out newspaper advertisements explaining their proposal and offering to connect with anyone who has concerns about the mine.

Walls suggests the pushback to the project isn’t interested in compromise or dialogue, but comes from more of a “watchdog mentality.” While that doesn’t take away from the value of their concerns, she says, adding she hoped to see a more collaborative approach to mitigating those fears while balancing the project’s benefits.

“People want to drive decent cars, they want cell phones, they want medical attention when they need it, they want their computers to work and they believe in the power of silica — they just don’t want it to come from our area,” she says. “And I have a fundamental problem with that.”

New silica sand industry could bring economic growth. Residents want assurances, accountability

Bullen and Walls believe a new manufacturing industry could also be key to the region’s economic future.

“This sounds like a cheesy travel campaign, but we could become the heart of the continent,” Walls says. “We’re ridiculously well suited for this: we’ve got low energy rates with hydro, we’re on the rail lines so we can transport north, south, east and west. It’s amazing.”

Walls sees an exciting opportunity to bring more resources to the community. She wants to see more active transportation options, better infrastructure, more opportunity to develop and grow the community.

“Change is hard, but change has to happen,” Walls says. “You have to grow. You’re growing or you’re dying, so let’s grow responsibly, sustainably, and let’s make it the best place ever.”

Josh Mustard walks through the snowy forest at the back of his property near Vivian, Manitoba
As federal and provincial governments encourage the growth of the critical mineral industry, people like Josh worry projects like Sio Silica’s mine will be approved without consideration for the communities in their wakes. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

Not everyone is convinced.

Josh Mustard has worked on countless oil and gas projects; he knows how hungry the world is for a new approach to energy production; he believes in innovation and development. But this project, in his mind, crosses a line.

“I’m not opposed to beneficial projects, but this doesn’t seem beneficial to anybody,” Josh says. “There’s a thirst for power and resources, but somewhere you’ve got to draw the line. You can’t just pillage land and not put nothing back.”

While the company reaps rewards, residents worry they’ll be left to deal with any potential negative impacts on their own.

“Critical minerals are getting a green light,” Bell says. “They’re allowed to go as if they don’t cause any issues or problems.”

Josh and Georgina Mustard walk up a snowy ridge towards the site where Sio Silica has begun exploratory drilling on the proposed Vivian, Manitoba sand mine
Josh and Georgina aren’t yet sure if they’ll have to leave Vivian — their home. It’s not something they like to think about, but the possibility seems evermore likely the longer Sio Silica’s mine charges on. Photo: Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

But in an agricultural community like Vivian, where Josh and Georgina volunteer, garden, send their kids to school and spend time with neighbours, building a new industry — even one geared towards ushering in a greener global economy — would change everyone’s way of life.

“I didn’t buy this land to be by an industrial park,” Josh says.

“This is our sanctuary,” Georgina adds.

Updated April 25, 2023, at 2:23 p.m. CT: A photo caption was updated to reflect that Dennis LeNeveu is an independent scientist, not a citizen scientist as was previously stated.

Updated April 27, 2023, at 5:02 p.m. CT: This story was corrected to reflect that Dennis LeNeveu participated in research to develop a theoretical model for burying nuclear fuel waste, rather than helping to bury nuclear waste at Pinawa, as was originally stated. This story was also updated to include public comments from the Manitoba Métis Federation, Peguis First Nation and Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.

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