Howe, others want environmental assessment
A notable stop on the trail to the oil boom in western North Dakota lies along the Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Along the river valley’s surface there are vast deposits of silica sand, also known as quartz sand, that’s an essential part of the hydraulic fracturing technique of producing oil. While excavating sand is nothing new in Minnesota, and the state has long issued permits for quarries, the rush to excavate large quantities to ship to the Dakotas has quickly unearthed a prominent issue for state legislators and regulators.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he’s hearing about the issue from people as he campaigns for re-election. He offered an amendment related to frac sand mining during the 2012 legislative session and plans to raise the issue in 2013.
“I don’t think the status quo reflects the true cost or the true value of sand being used for gas and oil production,” Hansen said. “You have the individual worker concerns, which are traditional health and safety of those in the occupation. You have the transportation of moving the product, whether its roads, bridges or ports. Then you have the resource concerns — you have a limited resource in environmentally sensitive areas.”
This summer Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, has been making the case for the state to prepare a so-called generic environmental impact statement (GEIS). On Wednesday after press time, Howe planned to make his case at an Environmental Quality Board meeting in St. Paul.
“We’re going to try to push them to do a generic environmental impact statement,” Howe said. “I think it’s important the state give — not mandate, but give — the townships and municipalities and the counties good guidance on what they should be looking for in their ordinances to address some of the transportation issues, the health and safety issues, the environmental issues. What we want to do is make sure the state is providing the resources that the counties and the townships and municipalities need.”
While Hansen and Howe are both calling attention to the rise in frac sand mining in the state, Hansen doesn’t support the GEIS option.
“I don’t think that’s the right way to go,” Hansen said. “I think we have some precedent with previous GEIS where they take a great deal of time and a great deal of money and they delay or defer the decisions that would have been made anyway. Our job as a Legislature is to have the hearing and gather the information and look at what we can and what we should do.”
According to Midwest Energy News, Minnesota has only undertaken two GEISs, with each costing around $1 million.
River valley rich in deposits
The geological development that has led to the current controversy was millions of years in the making. Silica sand deposits accumulated along the margins of shallow, inland seas during the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, according to Jim Miller, the director of the Precambrian Research Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
As sea levels rose, a beach line washed inland across the interior of North America, Miller said. Sheets of sand accumulation were subject to exposure from the weather and resulted in very mature sediments featuring silica sand. In the Upper Midwest, these sands were left on the surface instead of being buried, as was the case elsewhere. With the river waters sweeping mud away to deeper waters, the shores became a clean layer of silica sand, which is valued for fracking because, unlike other minerals, it doesn’t have any natural planes of weakness.
“They are tabular sheets of sand accumulation in layers that happened to be exposed at the Earth’s surface right here,” Miller said. “The reason that they are so pure is because they are made up of basically weathered rock from the interior of the continent that had been exposed to weathering at the Earth’s surface for millions of years.”
Wisconsin has moved quickly on frac sand mining. Local units of government in southeastern Minnesota, however, have tried to slow down the speed at which mining companies are pursuing excavation. Wabasha County, for example, is among the counties and townships that have implemented a moratorium on frac sand mining. And county commissioners there recently voted to extend the one-year moratorium that was going to expire this month. Cities from Winona to Red Wing have been studying frac sand mining in an attempt to figure out whether their ordinances need to be changed.
State grapples with scale of demand
The issue has also put pressure on state agency officials to assess an array of concerns. Chief among the inquiries has been the potential health effects of inhaling the small particles, said Jeff Smith, the director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s industrial division. Smith said the agency, which issues permits for water and air pollution, has been paying particular concern to the potential for so-called fugitive, or dispersed, particles to cause silicosis. It’s unclear whether the silica dust from southeastern Minnesota can scar lung tissue, as has happened to miners elsewhere.
“It’s unclear whether the activities that we’re talking about in Minnesota, the frac sand mining, [cause silicosis] because the particle size might be relatively close, but the shape of the sand particles are more round versus jagged,” Smith said. “We’re still doing some studies on whether it’s the same sort of comparison. But that is the concern.”
The concerns aren’t isolated to southeastern Minnesota. Twin Cities area municipalities have raised concerns about silica sand being transported through their communities.
“For the metro area, there’s not so much mining activities going on as there is the washing, sorting, drying. And then, what impacts they have on [people]. A lot of the concern is the increased truck traffic and rail traffic,” Smith said.
Howe said he doesn’t plan to raise the GEIS issue during the upcoming special session focused on passing disaster relief legislation for flood damaged parts of northeastern Minnesota. But he intends to seek funding for it in 2013. In 2012, frac sand mining had a low-key role on the legislative agenda. Hansen and Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, offered floor amendments to the omnibus environment bill that addressed the issue. Hansen withdrew his amendment. Falk’s amendment, which dealt with land reclamation costs once a mine closes, was defeated.
As studies at the local and state level continue, it’s unclear whether new permit requirements will be established or if existing ones will be modified. Smith said the discussion regarding the permit requirements continues to play out.
“For the most part, our permits are looking pretty much like they did before. And we’ll continue to make changes to those as information becomes available,” Smith said.