By Don Davis
New silica sand mines would be prohibited from opening for a year under a bill a state Senate committee approved Tuesday.
Besides a moratorium, the bill would require a study on the environmental impact of sand mines, establish a board to deal with the issue and levy taxes that would go to state and local governments.
The 8-4 vote in favor of the bill by Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, came over Republican complaints that regulation of the industry would force miners to set up operations in other states.
“I believe there are going to be some tremendous ramifications if this is allowed to go,” Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said, adding that the bill would hurt small businesses.
Schmit said he is not worried: “If there is a long-term demand for this sand, as industry has told us there is, there will be an opportunity for jobs long into the future.”
The Tuesday debate is about whether sand mining that is common in western Wisconsin should be allowed to expand into southeastern Minnesota, and perhaps beyond.
Opponents say mines and processing plants create air and water pollution problems, as well as burdening highways with hundreds of heavy trucks a day carrying the sand.
Wisconsin has few regulations to hamper sand mining growth. If Minnesota requires the moratorium and other regulations, Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, predicted mine companies that could go after Minnesota sand would, instead, open in states such as Wisconsin.
The silica sand is in demand, especially in North Dakota oil fields, where it is used to help force oil and sand out of the ground.
Schmit called the Wisconsin movement “a gold rush.”
“We need to take time to get it right,” he said.
His bill would require a generic study about the environmental impact of sand mines, a proposal opponents said is not valid because each mine’s impact is different. It also would establish a southeast Minnesota sand mining board that local governments could voluntarily join to draw up sample ordinances that could be used to regulate sand mining.
Beth Proctor of Blue Earth County said the moratorium is key.
“To protect the people, it is absolutely essential to enact a statewide moratorium,” she said.
However, Tony Kwilas of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said a moratorium would send “a very dangerous message” to not only the mining industry, but others as well.
Industry representatives said they favor strong state standards, but many already exist.
“There is nothing different in our holes in the ground from other holes in the ground in other parts of the state,” Peder Larson of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council said.
Added Fred Courigan of the Aggregate and Ready Mix Association of Minnesota: “This essentially wipes clean decades of legislative effort.”
Schmit said he is trying to offer a balanced bill, and is willing to make changes, but he is driven “by what is happening in western Wisconsin.”