Legislative Notebook: Sand Mining Bill Seeks Environmental Study

By Don Davis

Minnesota officials would study the environmental impact of silica sand mining and provide technical assistance to local governments dealing with sand mining issues under a bill to be introduced Monday in the state Senate.

The bill by Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, also would establish the Southern Minnesota Silica Sand Board and allow local governments to collect some taxes to deal with the issue.

Schmit’s bill comes after an overflow crowd Tuesday heard the two sides discuss sand mining in front of legislators.

“After many months of grassroots organizing, those concerned about rapid expansion of sand mining operations in the region finally had their day at the Capitol…” Schmit said. “The message was loud and clear: We have an opportunity to avoid the perils of western Wisconsin; let’s not repeat their mistakes.”

Silica sand, abundant in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, is used in oil and gas fields, including the booming Oil Patch in western North Dakota.

Wisconsin places few regulations on sand mining and busloads of Minnesotans attended the legislative hearing to urge Minnesota not to allow air and water pollution like in the neighboring state. They also complained about the heavy use of roads and railroads to transport the sand.

Schmit’s bill would require a generic environmental impact statement to determine how sand mining could affect those near a mine, as well as economic impacts.

“Importantly, this process will help us identify specific state permitting standards,” Schmit said.

The silica sand board Schmit proposes would establish a model ordinance that local governments could use when they are awarding mining permits. The board also would allow government officials to coordinate their work.

State experts would be made available to local governments when considering mining issues.

“State agencies have resources and expertise that local governments lack,” Schmit said.

Local governments would gain some taxing power under the bill so they do not lose money in dealing with sand mining, and they would be able to extend temporary bans on mines.

A Senate committee is to consider the bill Tuesday.

Care standard advances

A bill requiring certain levels of nurse staffing at hospitals awaits action in a second House committee and an initial Senate hearing.

Called the “standard of care” bill, it was written because some nurses say they are overworked and cannot provide patients the attention they need. Hospitals oppose the bill.

It passed its first House committee test 9-6, with Democrats for it and Republicans opposed.

President Lawrence Massa of the Minnesota Hospital Association said quotas established in the bill do not mean quality would improve. Hospitals say the staffing quotas would increase costs.

At the small Sleepy Eye hospital in southwestern Minnesota, nurses are leaving.

“We’ve lost 33 nurses in three years at our hospital,” said Naomi Freyholtz, a registered nurse at Sleepy Eye Medical Center. “Two retired early, and 31 have outright quit. We stand to lose six more if things don’t change.”

Union tries again

A judge ruled that Gov. Mark Dayton could not allow child care workers to unionize, so Democratic legislators introduce a bill Monday to authorize it.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 plans a Monday news conference to discuss the bill, which would allow home-based child care providers receiving state subsidies to join a union.

Opponents won a court battle when they said Dayton had no authority to authorize the unionization effort without legislation to back him up. The opponents also say that the child care providers are independent business owners and not eligible to join a union.

The bill by Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, says the state is considered the child care providers’ employer.