Spotlight Turns To Sand Mining

By Danielle Killey

Many Minnesotans are not sure whether more silica sand mining could mean dangerous dust and contaminated water, a booming economy or something in between.

Cities and counties have tried to manage mounting interest in mining Minnesota’s silica sand, but with many questions still surrounding the industry some think it is time for the state to step in.

“I want to address the unanswered questions that are troubling our local decision-makers and stakeholders and concerned citizens,” Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said. “The state has the capacity to get some of those answers.”

The Minnesota Legislature will take its first look at the issue this year on Tuesday. Lawmakers will hear testimony on silica sand mining issues at a joint House and Senate committee meeting, and bills will be discussed in the Senate Environment and Energy Committee Feb. 26.

The Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainability and land issues, plans to pack the hearing room. The group and its partners are pushing for a statewide environmental and economic study to include information about water, health, infrastructure and economic impacts, and clearer state regulations, Policy Program Organizer Bobby King said.

“While that’s going on, we need a moratorium so the industry doesn’t get ahead of appropriate regulations,” he said.

A statewide moratorium would temporarily put new operations on hold.

Concerns about the mining industry include stress on roads due to increased truck traffic, noise and impacts on water and air quality. Gov. Mark Dayton has said that transportation issues are among his biggest concerns.

The round, hard silica sand grains — mainly found in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois — are used to extract natural gas or oil in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The sand is injected along with water and chemicals into oil and gas wells to prop open cracks and increase the productivity of the wells.

Supporters note the industry can have a positive economic impact on communities around mining or processing operations.

“These businesses have livable-wage jobs,” Dennis Egan, head of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, said. “They take great pride in their relationships with the communities that they are doing business in.”

Egan, also Red Wing mayor, said the group is trying to find its way in new territory as the industry is pulled into the spotlight.

The mining council members, now six Minnesota-based companies, are predominantly from south-central cities such as Mankato, Shakopee, Jordan, North Branch and St. Peter. They will advocate for “best practices” management of dust control, transportation, water use and other issues that affect their industry.

Egan’s involvement in the sand council has drawn attention since frac sand mining has been an issue in the Red Wing area. Some residents have called for his resignation, but he has said there is no conflict of interest in holding both positions.

Individual counties and cities, especially in southeastern Minnesota, have established their own moratoriums in order to study the issue and set up local rules and regulations for mines.

King said he thinks the best system would be local governments continuing to issue permits and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency managing pollution matters.

“Local governments can’t be expected to take that on,” King said, referring to pollution monitoring.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he sees the state’s role as facilitator, to make sure local governments have the resources to regulate the industry.

“I think maybe we can play a role to make sure they are aware of what options they have,” McNamara said, noting the state could offer model ordinances.

“I see one community after another struggle with making sound ordinances and permitting decisions,” Schmit said. “At the end of the day, we want to empower our local decision-makers to make choices they feel good about.”

McNamara said he does not necessarily see the need for more state regulations or a statewide moratorium, but will remain open during discussions. He said one item the state could study is taxes and fees on the industry.

“We need to make sure they are paying adequately … so local governments don’t get stuck with the costs,” McNamara said, such as for building or repairing roads or restoring land after mines close.

King said the process for getting the state to take action likely will be similar to how moratoriums and studies in local governments happened.

“At the county level and at the city level it was really grassroots folks who pushed for what was needed, and got it in many cases,” he said. “I think that’s how it’s going to have to be at the Capitol this year.”