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House and Senate conferees have agreed on a set of regulations for frac sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. One conferee said the breadth of the issues that are addressed makes the legislation the first of its kind in the country.

Broadbased state regulations emerge for frac sand mining

Stockpiles of silica sand are piled at Modern Transport Rail loading terminal Feb. 13 in Winona, Minn. (AP Photo / The Winona Daily News: Andrew Link)

Minnesota lawmakers are poised to pass significant state regulations on frac sand mining.

After a session of intense debate on the mining of silica sand in the southeastern Minnesota region known as the Driftless Area, House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a compromise that’s aimed at preventing frac sand mining from harming the area’s trout streams. Frac sand takes its name from the hydraulic fracturing technique of exploring for oil and natural gas that uses large amounts of the finely ground sand that’s found in abundance in the Driftless Area.

Heading into conference committee, the Senate reached a deal to require frac sand operators to get a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources if the mine is within 1 mile of a trout stream. The permit approach was a compromise from an earlier proposal by Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, to prohibit silica sand mining within 1 mile of a trout stream.

“I don’t want to say I’m 100 percent satisfied, but I think this gives us a lot of tools to make a difference in southeastern Minnesota,” Schmit said. “The trout stream setback language we agreed to earlier this week is going to make a big difference in protecting the most sensitive regions in southeastern Minnesota.”

The bill makes lays the groundwork for establishing protections for more than just trout streams. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, contended the trout stream issue was too narrow of a focus. He successfully pushed for the establishment of a model ordinance for local governments that looks at setbacks for things like wellhead protection areas in addition to trout streamss. The standards also call for air and water quality protections for frac sand that’s in temporary storage.

The breadth of conference report, Hansen said, goes farther than any other state that has faced frac sand mining controversies.

“It’s the first of its kind, to our knowledge, in the country for silica sand. It’s comprehensive so we’ve got air, water—the whole picture,” Hansen said.

The push to regulate frac sand drew many residents from southeastern Minnesota to the Capitol this session. Many of them wanted state lawmakers to pass a moratorium on frac sand mining and conduct a general environmental impact statement before allowing frac sand mining to resume. John Kaul, a lobbyist for the Save the Bluffs advocacy organization, said the regulations in the conference agreement are very good and amount to a victory even though the moratorium didn’t advance.

“If the moratorium was there and we didn’t have this legislation, there’s no guarantee that in a year-long process we would do this well,” Kaul said.

The bill also provides $1 million for the biennium from the general fund for the Environmental Quality Board to lead an inter-agency effort to provide technical assistance for mining, processing and transporting silica sand and also for developing the model standards.

Tony Kwilas, the environmental policy lobbyist for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said he agrees with the technical advisory teams and the model ordinance. But he felt the permit requirement for mines close to trout streams singles out the industry. Kwilas noted that there are lots of water use permits in southeastern Minnesota such as orchards and golf courses that aren’t being subjected to the same scrutiny.

“That is an indication to me you are really calling out a single industry and adding additional rules and regulations to them. I just think that’s a dangerous message to send to the business industry,” Kwilas said.

While the new regulations on frac sand mining are moving forward, proposed taxes that the industrial sand industry opposed aren’t part of the final deal. The tax bill that passed the House floor contained taxes on the extraction and processing silica sand, which the Senate didn’t have.

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