ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A year ago Lynn Schoen had never heard of the process known as hydraulic sand fracking, the practice of pumping a slurry of fine sand into the ground to push oil closer to the surface.
Now, the Wabasha City Council member finds herself in the middle of what she sees as a fight to save the tourism industry in that picturesque Mississippi River town.
And that's what brought Schoen and dozens of her fellow southeastern Minnesota residents to the State Capitol Tuesday.
They asked lawmakers to impose new permitting standards on frac sand mining operations, to protect water and air quality and to help cities handle the heavy truck traffic connected with them.
"We have safety concerns about the volume of diesel trucks that will be rolling through our neighborhoods to get to the rails," Schoen told legislators who met for a joint House-Senate committee hearing.
And, Schoen asserted in a press conference, that the sand mining operations will squeeze local companies out of access to rail service.
"They're pushing a lot of our small business people away and saying, 'Our business is more important than yours because we're going to make so much more money'."
Several local communities in that part of the state, known for its bluffs and rolling tree-covered hills, have imposed temporary moratoriums on frac sand mining and processing operations.
They argue that the existing permitting process for quarries that produce sand and gravel for aggregate concrete mix, isn't sufficient for large scale mining operations producing fine silica destined for oil fields in other states.
"They propose to mine around the clock every day, and to consume large quantities of water from our aquifer to wash the mine sand," David Williams, who is the supervisor of Preble Township in Filmore County, testified.
"One proposed mine in my area submitted an application to the DNR to appropriate 198 million gallons of water per year!"
Williams and other opponents say that, when it comes to gauging the environmental impact of those operations, small town boards and aren't equipped to go head to head with the scientists hired by the mining companies.
He also said local government leaders can't control truck traffic on state highways that run through their cities, and can't prevent the DNR from leasing forest land owned by the state.
But those in the frac sand business say they believe local authorities are best suited to decide land-use issues.
They maintain that the existing approval process for non-metal mining is stringent enough, and companies already jump through enough bureaucratic hoops to gain permits from state agencies.
"Our industrial sand division received a permit for our North Branch facility, which is designed to receive, dry and sort silica sand," Mike Caron of Tiller Corporation told lawmakers.
"And, to be quite honest, our path to obtain those permits was not uncomplicated."
Kirsten Pauley, a geologist and civic engineer who is consulting the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, held up a thick document during her testimony.
"This is the recently issued air emissions permit for Tiller Corporation's drying facility up in North Branch," she explained.
"It's over 100 pages of permit itself, and over 200 pages of technical support."
She said the air monitoring process in place for traditional sand and gravel operations will adequately protect citizens. She said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would step in if more oversight were needed.
"Non-metallic mineral mining includes aggregates, construction sand and gravel, limestone, dimension stone quarries," Pauley said.
"And these types of mining operations have been operating for decades and decades successfully in Minnesota, in a regulated, effective fashion."
But Amy Nelson, a resident of Hague Creek Township in Goodhue County, said the mining companies that have set their sights on the hills near Red Wing aren't as accountable as locally owned businesses.
"We're talking about an oil company here that is part of a hedge fund. We aren't talking about a local family run agency that everybody knows."
She said the state should hold those mining companies to a higher standard, including testing for silica dust exposure.
"We want standards against the 2.5 micron silica dust that causes silicosis," Nelson explained.
Tuesday's hearing was an information gathering session. The Senate environment and energy committee is expected to debate a bill pertaining to frac sand mining on Feb. 26.
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