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Silica sand mining has become a booming business in southeastern Minnesota, and as a result it’s also become a burgeoning issue at the Legislature.

Boom in frac sand mining leaves Minnesota regulators scrambling

Stockpiles of silica sand are piled at Modern Transport Rail loading terminal Feb. 13 in Winona, Minn. The stockpile has become an icon that frames the local debate about the sand rush — and the complex decisions and opinions of all parties involved. The arrival of silica sand-related businesses to southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin has sparked controversy and discussion across the region. (AP Photo / The Winona Daily News: Andrew Link)

Silica sand mining has become a booming business in southeastern Minnesota, and as a result it’s also become a burgeoning issue at the Legislature. The small, fine sand (also known as quartz sand) that is being mined near the Mississippi River is needed in great supply by oil companies exploring in North Dakota. The sand is used in a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

While the so-called frac sand mines are covered under environmental permitting laws, environmental groups and state regulators are coming to grips with whether current law is equipped to handle the massive rush for sand.

Gary Botzek, a long-time conservation lobbyist who represents the
Minnesota Conservation Federation, said the frac sand issue could become one of the top environmental issues in the 2013 Minnesota legislative session.

“Minnesota happens to have a lot of it, because the glaciers were good to us,” Botzek said. “We have the supply and all the sudden there’s a demand for this. The problem is, it has environmental ramifications.”

Botzek noted that the rules in place were put there to deal with gravel pit operations, which have historically been overseen by local governments. “The state may want to or need to step in,” he said.

Sudden attention

The profile of the issue is rising rapidly. On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania-based company announced that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has joined its board of directors. And the public is becoming wary of the potential for environmental damage: News broke this week that the Wisconsin Department of Justice is considering taking action against two mining firms that spilled large amounts of sand into the St. Croix River.

In 2012 DFL state legislators made the first attempts to address frac sand mining in the legislative arena, by way of two floor amendments to the omnibus environment bill.
Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, proposed to add the condition that frac sand companies pay a fee into an account that counties would use cover reclamation costs when the mining has ended. His amendment failed, but he plans to continue to raise frac sand issues if he’s re-elected.

“The real issue that I think needs to be addressed is that it’s a Wild West,” Falk said. “There is no uniform set of rules. Some places have zoning, some don’t. When it comes to extracting this resource, who’s going to clean up the mess that’s left behind? Who’s going to deal with the restoration? Who’s going to get the land back to a useable state after the mining is done?” Falk said.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, whose district borders the Mississippi River, offered an amendment, eventually withdrawn, that increased the aggregate production tax to pay the cost of public infrastructure improvements needed as a result of the frac sand industry.

“The high-quality sand is needed throughout the county. It’s the best there is, but ultimately it’s a finite resource,” Hansen said. “What happens after it’s gone? And do we have the road capacity, the storage capacity, the containment and the repair and all that prepared for as this is happening very quickly?”

The rapid growth of frac sand mining has sent multiple state agencies scrambling to assess the magnitude of its impact. The state departments of Health and Transportation are involved as well as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Jeff Smith, the director of the PCA’s Industrial Division, said the effort includes a technical team within his agency that has been evaluating environmental regulations for air, water and land concerns.

Because silica sand is comparatively lighter and smaller, Smith said, it’s easily moved by wind and creates air pollution concerns.

“One of the questions we have to answer is: Do the controls that we have in our existing permits, are they designed to control particle sizes that tend to blow around a lot more than just your classic sand, gravel and aggregate?” Smith said.

The environmental concerns are being raised against the backdrop of recent efforts by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature to streamline and expedite the environmental review process in general. The DFL governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature found rare instances of accord in 2011 and 2012 on such environmental streamlining legislation. Smith said there’s a delicate balance involved in taking on frac sand mining while also fulfilling the spirit of the last two rounds of permit legislation.

“We want to make sure we are protecting the environment and human health and issuing timely permits so that Minnesota companies can get rolling,” Smith said.

While the state has authority of mine permitting, many of the land-use issues associated with frac sand mining are being handled at the local level. In some cases, local governments have instituted moratoriums on frac sand permits as they try to analyze the risks and impact. Several counties and cities have enacted moratoriums of varying durations. The city of Winona, for example, in March enacted a year-long ban on any new or expanded silica mining.

It’s not a surprise, then, that sand fracking has rekindled the local moratorium issue at the Capitol. lawmakers had waged pitched battles in the past over feedlots and other industrial land uses governed by what are known as interim ordinances. In 2012 the issue caught Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, by surprise when he introduced legislation that put a “moratorium on moratoriums” and instead moved to make local governments create conditional uses as a way to regulate industrial land use. While the genesis of Beard’s bill came from issues related to builders and developers in the Twin Cities, the implication that local governments would no longer be able to stop the clock on frac sand mining made his bill controversial.

“That is why the environmentalists all of a sudden care about it,” Beard said. “Because it has to do with big oil.”

John Tuma, a lobbyist for Conservation Minnesota, said the rise of sand mining help scuttle Beard’s bill.

“It helped us defeat some of the local control bills, pointing to the frac sand issue and saying: Do you really want let your local neighbors not be able to regulate these issues?” Tuma said.

Smith said the PCA isn’t at the stage yet where they can make legislative recommendations. But he fully expects to see the issue move to the fore at the Legislature.

“We saw a little bit of legislative conversation beginning last year,” Smith said. “I think we’re going see even more of one next year, and we’ll see some more bills and questions.”

House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Chair Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, whose community is just upstream from the heart of the sand mining activity, said his committee could be a venue for legislative discussion next year.

“If the committee feels we need to have a broader understanding of it, it certainly could come up as an issue,” McNamara said.


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