In 2012, silica sand mining in southeastern Minnesota made headlines but failed to spawn any real legislative activity. This year, legislators on both sides of the aisle, along with Gov. Mark Dayton, are preparing to meet the issue head on.
The mining of silica sand in southeastern Minnesota has developed rapidly in recent years as a result of the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) boom in North Dakota. Fine and round, the sand is ideally suited to the technique used to break layers of underground rock and extract natural gas and petroleum deposits.
The frac sand issue has sparked grassroots protest among local residents around the bluff lands of southeastern Minnesota, and the outlines of a policy debate are taking shape at the state Capitol. Lawmakers are mulling moves such as a two-year moratorium on the practice while a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) is prepared.
Dayton stands to be an active player in the frac sand debate. Before the beginning of the legislative session, he told reporters during a forum with legislative leaders that he expected frac sand mining to be “huge” in 2013. This week Dayton met with a bipartisan group of legislators, state agency officials and local officials to discuss the issue. Dayton spokesperson Katherine Tinucci said she expects the issue to be dealt with at the state level this year. Dayton hasn’t yet made any final decisions on a policy proposal, she said.
In the Legislature, Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, and Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, are preparing bills to address the myriad issues related to the mining.
Moratorium proposal likely
Hansen said one idea is to create on-call scientific and technical advisory teams that would get information to local units of government when a permit application is filed.
Currently, Hansen said, the aggregate tax is 16 cents a ton. He said some sort of severance or depletion tax could be added to help local units of government with costs associated with infrastructure improvements and environmental monitoring.
“The general theme… is, the private industry would pay for the public cost,” Hansen said.
One idea that’s been discussed since last summer is to undertake a GEIS. Hansen, however, isn’t a supporter, because such a study would take a long time. “I think there are things we can do now,” he said. “A generic environmental impact statement may take two years when we can make some decisions now.”
Schmit noted that the demand for natural gas has curtailed in recent months. But policymakers, he said, can’t avoid the fact that fracking has created new industrial demands in southeastern Minnesota. “It’s a matter of threading the needle. The industry is moving into southeastern Minnesota, so let’s be ready for it,” Schmit said.
One notion that’s garnering support around the Capitol is a moratorium on frac sand mining. The Land Stewardship Project (LSP) in particular is promoting that approach, and has been very active in mobilizing local residents to demand increased protections from the sand-mining operations. Bobby King, LSP’s policy program organizer, said the state lacks minimum standards for things like mining for sand under the water table.
“The problem we have is, we don’t know what the permitting requirements should be because the industry is so new,” King said. “We need that moratorium so the state can assess how we get the state-level permitting requirements.”
LSP has already brought some of its members to the Capitol this session to talk to lawmakers. On Feb. 26, the frac sand issue will be featured prominently when the group hosts its Family Farm Breakfast and Day at the Capitol.
Mining industry mobilizes
The sand mining industry has recently gotten organized as well. The Minnesota Industrial Sand Council was formed about three weeks ago, with Red Wing Mayor and Capitol lobbyist Dennis Egan as its executive director. The council, which is part of Aggregate & Ready Mix of Minnesota, has hired the Minneapolis-based Larkin Hoffman law and lobbying firm as its lobbyists. The group includes sand-mining companies as well as railroad, trucking and petroleum interests.
“We’ve got mining operations that have been in Mankato and Shakopee and St. Peter and Winona. These are Minnesota folks,” Egan said. “When they hear their operations and their livelihood potentially is going to come to a screeching halt, they said: ‘We need a voice at the Capitol, because that’s now where the conversation is going.’”
The group is stressing to lawmakers that the sand is used in industries ranging from sand paper to fiber optics, and calling attention to state and federal regulations that hold the industry in check, Egan said. He said the group is also putting together a best practices document.
“We want this industry to be safe and healthy, not only for those for those who work in the pits but for the communities that surround it,” Egan said. “Truck traffic, dust issues that comes from mining, we recognize there can be concerns, so how do we best address that?”
Minnesota municipal lobbying groups are also actively tracking the frac sand issues at the Capitol. For more than a year, cities and counties have implemented so-called interim ordinances that put the brakes on sand mining applications. State law allows for 12-month interim ordinances and possible 12-month extensions. The city of Winona, for example, has a moratorium in place that expires in March. On Monday, the local city council will vote on an ordinance that spells out the rules for sand mining operations.
Annalee Garletz, environment and natural resources policy analyst for the Association of Minnesota Counties, noted that the applications have been challenging for local units of government, because they lack pre-existing guidelines — unlike feedlots or shoreline development, which have a long track record. “With this issue in particular, it’s all come about relatively quickly and it’s so new that there has not been a lot of model ordinances to look at,” Garletz said.