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New MPCA head sticks head in frac sand on Southeastern Minnesota mining concerns
In Minn. pollution watchdog says voluntary efforts by farmers can help clean rivers, an interview with AP reporter Steve Karnowski, new MPCA head John Linc Stine reveals himself to be something of a toothless guardian of the public interest, and when it comes to frac sand mining, a whole lot of ostrich.
Perhaps he hasn't heard what breathing in all that frac sand dust will do to a body; he certainly seems to have missed the point of the raft of interim ordinances passed by counties, townships and cities in Southeastern Minnesota: that the scale of frac sand mining makes it unlike the friendly neighborhood gravel pits where so many of us learned to rock hunt, shoot or drink beer.
Activists had been telling Bluestem that they hoped Governor Dayton might impose a statewide moratorium while we sort out new rules to deal with the coming tsunami of frac sand mining operations. The Stine AP interview (MPR version) dashes those hopes:
Stine said he sees only a limited role for the MPCA in an emerging mining issue — frac sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. It's been dealt with primarily as a local issue so far, and Stine said he doesn't envision that changing.
He said the silica sand sought by oil and gas companies that use it for hydraulic fracturing in other states is similar to sand and gravel that have long been mined in Minnesota, and has always been regulated locally. He said the MPCA and health department are providing advice to local governments that seek it.
Is that arrangement working? It seems just peachy for the large corporations that want to open dozens of new large operations, but not such a boon to small towns. In March, Paul Tosto reported in an MPR News Primer [on] Frac sand mining:
Where do we stand in Minnesota and Wisconsin?
Right now, we're in a bit of a standoff. Despite the money to be made and the clamor of businesses to open new mines, many officials in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin are starting to pull back the reins as they rethink the social and environmental costs.
Wabasha, Goodhue and Winona counties in Minnesota and Pepin and Eau Claire counties in Wisconsin have already adopted moratoriums on new mining operations, although Eau Claire County's is for just six months, the Associated Press writes. The Winona County moratorium is the shortest of all, expiring on May 1. The cities of Red Wing, Lake City, Hay Creek and Florence also have passed moratoriums.
Houston and Filmore counties recently agreed to a one-year ban on new mines. City of Winona officials used an emergency meeting in mid-March to pass a one year moratorium on any new or expanded silica sand mining operations within city limits.
By comparison officials Wisconsin's Trempealeau County have not seriously considered stopping the growth of the frac sand mining, the La Crosse Tribune reports.
Officials say they want more time to study frac sand mining. But state lawmakers, concerned about fairness for companies and landowners, have filled bills in the Minnesota House and Senate that would check the power of local officials to limit moratoriums.
If there's a middle ground in the frac sand mining debate, it has yet to be discovered.
Ah yes, the world is just so unfair to corporations, and it's a good thing that there are ALEC members like Mike Beard (he's on the corporate front group's Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development Task Force) working to make life better for them. The efforts to gut local control died on the senate floor, but it was a close call.
The proposed legislation would have narrowed the time frame for local governments to pass interim ordinances (moratorium) that give them time to write rules for development. The Minnesota Supreme Court has upheld the rights of townships and local government to set rules; they cannot, however, stop projects on a whim.
The governor's office never publicly signaled how Dayton would react if the legislation passed in both houses and reached his desk. It would be quite the coup for the frac sand mining industry next session if the legislation makes it to Dayton's desk and approval. Then the MPCA can leave the matter to local government, while the state takes away any real power it would have had to reduce the impact of this juggernaut or stop reckless projects.
Drawing in part from the outstanding work by Minnesota's Jim Tittle and other activists, Ellen Cantarow's TomDispatch piece ran in MoJo as How Rural America Got Fracked: The environmental nightmare you know nothing about, finally alerting many Twin Cities liberals about the mind-boggling scale of the issue.
(Of course, those living in Southern Minnesota knew about this nightmare, but like common knowledge about Allen Quist, it's not real for our progressive overlords in the Metro until some big national venue tells them to be outraged. We also do not envy their dilemma as they struggle to put aside environmental concerns in order to support the Dayton administration's pro-corporate bent on this one.) Nor does the piece get into the more recent discussion of the fracking industry's economic bubble.
But Bluestem digresses.
Cantarow's excellent piece on frac sand mining in Wisconsin--also run in the Nation, Salon, and Huffington Post--should be an eye-opener for those who haven't been paying attention; Bluestem doesn't expect Stine to open his eyes, even if he does manage to pull his head out of the ever-growing sand piles.
It's impossible to grasp the scope of the devastation from the road, but aerial videos and photographs reveal vast, bleak sandy wastelands punctuated with waste ponds and industrial installations where Wisconsin hills once stood.
When corporations apply to counties for mining permits, they must file "reclamation" plans. But Larry Schneider, a retired metallurgist and industrial consultant with a specialized knowledge of mining, calls the reclamation process "an absolute farce."
Reclamation projects by mining corporations since the 1970s may have made mined areas "look a little less than an absolute wasteland," he observes. "But did they reintroduce the biodiversity? Did they reintroduce the beauty and the ecology? No."
Studies bear out his verdict. "Every year," wrote Mrinal Ghose in the Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research, "large areas are continually becoming unfertile in spite of efforts to grow vegetation on the degraded mined land."
Read the whole thing. And a recent incident along the St Croix illustrates the dangers of frac sand mining. Madeleine Baran reports in Frac sand sediment spills into St. Croix River:
A spill at a sand mining facility in Wisconsin has dumped an unknown amount of sand and other sediment into the St. Croix River and wetlands near the Minnesota border, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources confirmed Thursday.
The sand-laden water may have harmed aquatic life, but DNR officials said it's too soon to know the extent of the damage. They plan to conduct a full investigation with the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. National Park Service, and Burnett County Conservation officials.
"I'm sure there were things living there that are going to have difficulty living there now that they're covered with sand," said Tom Woletz, a senior manager at the Wisconsin DNR who specializes in sand mining and other industries related to hydraulic fracking.
To paraphrase an old saying: Frac sand water isn't healthy for children and other living things, regardless of how invigorating legal "persons" like corporations might find it to be for their bottom lines.
The rapid growth has left state and local officials scrambling to oversee the industry. Two years ago, Wisconsin had five frac sand mines and five processing facilities. Now it has 63 mines and 36 processing facilities, according to current DNR figures.
County officials are responsible for approving new mine sites, but they are not required to regularly inspect the facilities, said Burnett County Conservationist Dave Ferris.
"We go out on an occasional basis," Ferris said. "We did not have any particular inspection regime in our permit." . . .
Jill Medland, environmental coordinator at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, said the incident shows the danger of allowing a sand mining facility so close to a pristine waterway.
"It seems that there's such a demand for frac sand that things are getting permitted quickly without full environmental review, and then things happen that should or could have been avoided," she said.
There have been other spills in Wisconsin over the last year. Yeah, not asking for any state standard has worked out so well for Scott Walker's Wisconsin.
Will this sort of thing be duplicated in Mark Dayton's Minnesota? The attempt to gut the ability of local governments to slow down the process while writing land use policy is likely to come back in the next session.
Between redistricting and retirements, the next legislature will be considerable different than the one that's kept us entertained for the last two years. The DFL caucuses are gunning to regain control. It's not too much for progressive Minnesotans to ask candidates from all parties where they stand on local control, especially in the light of runaway corporate frac sand mining.
If the DFL wants to market itself as a contrast to Walker's Wisconsin, perhaps it might pick an environment standard or two or three that will do so, rather than endorse an economic race to the bottom of the sand pits proposed for Greater Minnesota.
Photos and Video of frac sand mining operations in Scott Walker's Wisconsin, by Jim Tittle. Used with permission.