A Whitehall man has a protective covering on the bulldozer he was driving to thank for being alive after he and his machine were submerged in a detention pond for 2½ hours Monday morning at a Hi-Crush sand mining operation in Trempealeau County.
Shortly before 8 a.m. the bulldozer Robbie Gunderson, an employee of Tomah-based Gerke Excavating, was driving slid into the detention pond at the Whitehall sand mining facility and was quickly covered by a mix of water, sand, clay and silt.
Gunderson operated the machine from inside an air-tight compartment, a fact Hi-Crush officials credit with saving his life.
“His being enclosed in that space really saved him,” Hi-Crush chief operating officer Scott Preston said.
Gunderson immediately used his radio to contact others about his plight, and many local emergency response personnel responded to the scene to figure out how to rescue him. Divers, firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement officers attempted to devise a plan to remove Gunderson from his machine and the water-soil mix overhead, but those efforts initially proved unsuccessful, Hi-Crush officials said Tuesday.
As minutes turned to hours and removal of Gunderson and his machine didn’t prove possible, rescue team members came up with a different solution. They decided to breach a dike separating the pond from a tributary of the Trempealeau River, releasing 10 million gallons of process water into a tributary and then into the river, company officials said.
“This was an emergency decision made to save Mr. Gunderson’s life,” Preston said.
After process water drained from the pond, Gunderson was rescued from his vehicle, taken to shore by a rescue boat and transported to a nearby hospital. He did not sustain serious injuries, Hi-Crush officials said, and was released from the hospital Monday. Several firefighters sustained minor injuries, according to the Trempealeau County sheriff’s office.
Hi-Crush officials said Tuesday that Gunderson told them he is “doing fine.”
State Department of Natural Resources officials said in a news release cleanup of the sediment is ongoing and DNR staff continue to monitor the water quality of the tributary and the Trempealeau River. Neighbors also reported the spill flooded some properties in the area.
The incident remains under investigation as authorities seek to identify what substances were in the spill that caused the Trempealeau River to turn a shade of orange.
The detention pond water was mixed with silt and likely contained a flocculant, a chemical that promotes the clumping of particles, especially in treating waste water, according to Jeff Johnson, inspector of environmental compliance for Hi-Crush.
“We believe there may be trace amounts of that substance that would have been left in that water,” Johnson said, noting discharge water at the site is regularly monitored to ensure it is in compliance with industry regulations.
The plume was working its way toward the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday afternoon, and Sabrina Chandler, manager of the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to assess the potential impact of the spill.
“Any time something foreign, chemicals, get into the river it’s a concern,” Chandler told the La Crosse Tribune. “At this point we don’t know what the implications may be.”
Hi-Crush is working with the DNR to assess and mitigate the impact of the spill on the river, Johnson said. In addition, Preston said, the company has repaired the detention pond berm to prevent more drainage and is cleaning up neighboring properties affected by the incident.
According to the La Crosse Tribune, the 1,447-acre mine and processing site is one of four Wisconsin sites operated by Hi-Crush. The site reported eight worker injuries in 2017, a rate more than 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
MSHA has cited Hi-Crush Whitehall 18 times since the facility opened in 2014, resulting in fines totaling $2,887.
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