Dwight and Ruth Swenson witnessed a bluff disappear next to their property near Hixton in Jackson County.
“It feels like an earthquake when they’re blasting,” Dwight Swenson said. “The house shutters. The windows shutter. Our neighbors have been rolled out of bed.”
Jim Tittle captured the Swensons’ experience on the film. The Swensons were among people he interviewed for the production of Promise in the Sand, a documentary he released June 4 with co-producer Wendy Johnson.
Tittle, a St. Paul, Minnesota, resident, released the 25-minute film on the sand mining industry nearly five years after his original hour-long The Price of Sand.
“I made the sequel because people asked, ‘What happened since then?’” Tittle said.
Starting in Chetek, the film takes viewers to Tomah, Hixton, New Auburn, Bagley and Clayton County, Iowa. Tittle and Johnson used aerials, time lapse and a first-hand view of explosions demolishing a bluff to give viewers a look at frac sand mining as it happens.
In Hixton, Tittle captured images of the Swensons tending to their garden against the backdrop of big piles of sand and large-scale explosions. He also conveyed the strong feelings of two people who believe their quiet rural lifestyle has been shattered by an industrial operation next door.
“This is our home,” said Ruth Swenson. “We’ve raised our family here ... this is where I belong. This not where an industrial sand mine belongs.”
In New Auburn, Tittle filmed a county road where six sand trucks passed a residential home within a 30-second period during a September afternoon. Southeast of New Auburn, a woman spoke of the impact of silica dust. She described coughing cows and overnight guests who developed nose bleeds.
“I talked to people who lived at the edge (of mines) and were worried about environmental issues and the quality of their lives,” Tittle said.
Tittle has worked as a freelance camera operator for over 20 years. His most recognizable work is for History Channel’s Monsterquest. His interest in sand mining was triggered in 2011, when an oil company purchased land next to his mother’s rural home in Goodhue County, Minnesota. The family learned the company intended build a mine to extract the type of sand used by energy companies to fracture rocks where oil deposits are trapped.
Citizen opposition prevented the mine from being built, but Tittle was curious about the fate of areas where mines were allowed to proceed. It led him across the Mississippi River to Wisconsin, where a more favorable regulatory environment for sand mines exists.
“There is a big difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Tittle said. “You can tell that by looking at a map and seeing the number of mines.”
The Price of Sand took 18 months to produce and was released in 2013. A year later, the price of sand plummeted, along with the price of oil, and many sand operations either cut back or shut down. Tittle said he was interested in how the boom-and-bust nature of sand was affecting local communities and began shooting the sequel in 2016, when oil prices bottomed out around $45 per barrel.
“Originally I was going compare stories, compare before and after,” Tittle said. “It got difficult, and I didn’t want to make something that you would have to watch the first film before you watched the second film ... we decided to make it more about the people than the before and after.”
He discovered that smaller communities with less diverse economies were particularly vulnerable to sand price fluctuation.
“When the price of oil goes up and down, the price of frac sand is going to go up and down,” he said. “If you have too big a percentage of mining in your economy, it’s a problem.”
However, most of the film deals with environmental issues and how sand mines impact neighboring residents and farms. In Monroe County, Tittle interviewed landowner Rock Greendeer, who described waking up one morning in late April and seeing what looked like snow covering his property. It was actually wastewater discharged by a nearby sand mine that since closed. Greendeer said nobody has been held responsible for cleaning it up.
Tittle said adding Johnson as a co-producer was a big asset to the sequel. He said Johnson, who teaches writing at a community college in Minnesota, conducted the interviews, which allowed Tittle to concentrate on filming.
“We both have a strong interest in people’s stories,” he said.
While Tittle said his goal wasn’t to achieve “balance,” the film does show people wearing t-shirts that say, “Sand=Jobs.” It also has interview footage with Issac Orr of The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that generally supports the mining industry. Orr defended the industry and cited studies that challenge accusations that sand mining produces toxic levels of silica dust and depresses neighboring land values.
Both of Tittle’s films are available through Amazon Prime. He tried selling The Price of Sand through DVDs but discovered it was an awkward distribution method. He said he squeezed a small profit from his first film but makes his living primarily through his other freelance camera work.
“It isn’t a commercial enterprise,” Tittle said. “You’re foolish if you think you can make a buck on it.”
Tomah Journal Steve Rundio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.