Frac sand mining moratorium moves forward at Capitol

12:25 AM, Feb 27, 2013   |    comments
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Frac sand mining operation in Wisconsin

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A senate panel Tuesday OK'd a bill that would place a one-year moratorium on new frac sand mining operations in Minnesota.

The bill approved by the Environment and Energy committee also calls for what's known as a generic environmental impact statement, which would evaluate whether such operations are environmentally sound regardless of where they're located.

The measure's chief author, Sen. Matt Schmitt of Red Wing, said his bill is an attempt to empower local communities by adding more state oversight of the environmental review process.

"The water tables and the aquifers don't stop at county lines," Schmitt told his colleagues. "Neither does the impact of sand mining."

The bluffs of southeast Minnesota are rich in the type of fine sands used by the petroleum industry in a process known as fracking, in which a slurry of sand and water is pumped into the ground to force oil and natural gas to the surface through fractures in the bed rock.

Schmitt, a first-term Democrat, said he's trying to strike a balance between the needs of people in the mining industry and concerns from residents who want a check against the potential hazards of silica dust and water table depletion.

"What causes concern is what's happened in western Wisconsin, and the demand for silica sand and the price that's being paid for silica sand and the volume of permit requests that have come down in such a short amount of time."

Those in the business say a one-year moratorium would hurt an industry that has proven to be responsible during decades of mining conventional sand used in concrete and asphalt.

"Our concern is the opportunity to create jobs in Mankato, and create a growth business in Mankato, that this legislation would bring that to a screeching halt," Scott Sustacek of Jordan Sands told the committee.

Kirsten Pauly, a geologist working as a consultant for the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, said that the MPCA currently issues air quality permits to sand operations. Those mining proposals also must apply to the DNR for permits to extract water from the underground aquifer.

Pauly asserted a generic environmental impact statement process isn't warranted.

"It ends up taking quite a bit of time, and it ends up cost quite a bit of money," Pauly told KARE.

"And it really doesn't address some of the site specific issues that each of these sites really does need to look at in local applications." 

Sen. Julie Rosen, a Republican from Fairmont, said the fact that silica sand mining hasn't flourished in Minnesota the way it has in the bluffs of western Wisconsin.

"When the expansion is going on over in Wisconsin and not Minnesota, that's a pretty good indicator that we have some very strict, comprehensive regulations in place that need to be followed," Rosen said.

Rosen noted that her largely rural district in southern Minnesota is home to industrial feed lots and major ethanol plants. She said she trusts that the same agencies that regulate those types of businesses are up to the task of handling the frac sand miners.

"This is agriculture! People live in agricultural lands. They have to expect the smells and the dust and the inconveniences and their roads beat up because that is what happens," Rosen remarked.

That created a stir in the large contingent of people from southeast Minnesota who are hoping to slow the development of the industrial sand mining.

The legislation heads next to the Senate Government Operations Committee.

"They tell us they're going to go well into the Jordan aquifer to pull the sand out," Caroline Harrington, who lives in Line Township south of Mankato, told KARE.

"And so we fear greatly for our water quality and the future of the water table."

Harrington said Jordan Sands has applied for a permit near her farm, where she raises horses.  She said she appreciates the part of the bill that would charge sand miners a fee to offset damages to state and local roads.

"They will have thousands of trucks on those roads, hundreds every day. And I will be sharing those roads with them."

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