A field guide to the Minnesota legislature’s February 19 frac sand hearings

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Alarmed by the transformation of Southwest Wisconsin into sand pit corridors of Mordor, Minnesotans began organizing grassroots resistance to industrial scale silica sand mining in 2011, demanding that city and county government place moratoria on new mines and processing.

Mining interests have dismissed them as ill-informed nimbys, while touting the jobs sand mining creates as silica sand is extracted, stockpiled, processed, and hauled off to America’s shale oil and gas fields. The particular quality of sand buried beneath the bluffs and fields in the upper Midwest is particularly prized for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

While that process is also controversial, no fracking takes place in Minnesota. Citizen opposition rises from health, safety and environment concerns particular to sand mining. Steve Karnowski of the Associated Press reported in Minnesota Legislature silica sand mining hearing slated:

Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville and chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said Tuesday’s hearing is meant for lawmakers to get a clear idea who has authority over the industry and who’s responsible for looking at the risks.

Opponents want a state-imposed moratorium to replace several local moratoriums that expire soon or already have expired. Gurley said that’s important because the large-scale environmental study they’re also seeking might take more than a year, so once the local roadblocks expire there will be little to stop the industry from moving ahead.

Tuesday’s joint meeting of the Minnesota senate Committee on Environment and Energy; House Committee on Energy Policy marks the first time that the Minnesota state legislature has called for testimony about the expansion of industrial-scale sand mining in Minnesota.

Committee chairs Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) and Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) will gavel the meeting at noon, February 19, Room 123 Capitol.

The Players: Pro and Con

At a meeting of the Environmental Quality Board last September, the line was ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’: Frac supporters say environmental review isn’t needed, the Rochester Post Bulletin reported and little has changed in the arguments advanced by the sand mining industry and its friends.

Now, as then, silica sand mining advocates argue that they don’t need any additional adult supervision as digging up sand is already heavily regulated. New to the discussion are generous estimates of job creation from the Heartland Institute, a conservative anti-environmental think tank based in Chicago, and the creation of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council by the Aggregate and Ready-Mix Association of Minnesota.

MISC has hired Red Wing mayor Dennis Egan as executive director, along with other lobbyists, and civil engineer Kirsten Pauly. Pauly spoke in support of the industry at the EQB meeting last fall; in January, KEYC-TV in Mankato reported that Pauly presented the results of an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) for Jordan Sands, which hopes to open a sand processing site in Lime Township near Mankato. Egan and others seek to be able to self-regulate and tout the use of voluntary “best practices.”

In addition to the ethical issues it raised, Egan’s new job bolstered one argument made by grassroots anti-sand activists: that the industry itself rewards local officials who support mining proposals. Moreover, the shifting sands created by ownership and annexation changes in Wisconsin–fused with the fortunes to be made in mining–cause local permit protections melt like sand castles.

Bluestem chronicled a litany of concerns here. Health and safety rank highest but aren’t the matters residents flag. Local property owners worry about the erosion of their property values as the enormous mines destroy working rural landscapes while truck and train traffic rumbles past their homes. Citizens in St. Charles, the gateway to Whitewater State Park, and small town tourist-mecca Lanesboro fret about the destruction of the tourism industry; farmers worry about water and soil contamination. Ponds holding silica sand slurry have burst in Wisconsin, contaminating surface water; others worry about groundwater and wellhead contamination.

And the citizens are organized from Save The Bluffs in Goodhue County to the Houston County Protectors. Land Stewardship Project, which maintains a field office in Lewiston, will host an 11:00 a.m. press conference at the capitol before the hearing, featuring spokespeople from the two buses bringing local residents to St. Paul. St. Paul documentary filmmaker Jim Tittle, whose family lives in Goodhue County’s Hay Creek Township, will present a brief clip from The Price Of Sand, a brutally honest look at sand mining in Wisconsin.

The agencies

Those tuning into the Uptake’s coverage can also anticipate staff from an alphabet soup of state agencies to testify. In addition to protecting fish and wildlife, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also oversees the exploitation of mineral resources. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues air and water permits for non-metallic mines, while the Minnesota Department of Health may conduct Health Impact Assessments for air and water quality issues in mining projects. Recently, the MPCA and the MDH both called for an environmental impact study of two connected mines proposed in Winona County.

The lawmakers

The joint committee will only hear testimony on Tuesday, February 19; the senate Committee on Environment and Energy will discuss silica sand mining bills on Tuesday, February 26 at noon in Room 123 Capitol. Bills will be added to the agenda as they are introduced.

So far, Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) has introduced only bill on file relating to frac sand mining. HF 425 addresses scientific and natural area and wellhead easement protection issues. Senator Matt Schmit (DFL-Red Wing) plans to introduce a bill providing broader legislative relief before the February 26 hearing.