Local officials ask the state for help regulating frac-sand mining

Anti-frac mining activists waved signs at a press conference Feb. 19.
Anti-frac mining activists waved signs at a press conference Feb. 19.

Wary residents of southern Minnesota and mining industry officials painted contrasting pictures Feb. 19 of silica or frac sand found in abundance from Chisago to Houston counties.

“I think it (a moratorium on new frac mines) would be appropriate,” said John Marty, DFL-Roseville and Senate Environment and Energy Committee chairman.

Used as a means of fracturing shale in gas and oil mining, frac-sand production almost doubled nationally from 2009 to 2010 to 12 million tons, according to the U.S. Geological Service.

While frac-sand mining and processing facilities are more numerous in Wisconsin, a processing plant is located at North Branch with mining going on elsewhere in Minnesota.

Some city and county officials are nervous.

The Houston County Board, which previously enacted a one-year moratorium on frac-sand mining and processing, is currently in the process of reinstating the moratorium.

In a letter to Marty’s committee, Houston County Board Chairman Justin Zmyewski urged lawmakers to take action.

“Many of the potential negative impacts of this industry cannot be addressed by ordinances at the county level,” Zmyewski wrote.

He urged that the  Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) establish permits — if pollution control does not happen at the state level, it will not happen, Zmyewski argued.

Zmyewski called for a generic environmental impact statement to establish permitting standards, and also called for a statewide moratorium to allow the MCPA to complete the study.

Local government wants more state oversight on frac mining, Marty argued.

“Our job now is to figure out how to make that happen,” he said.

The state did not want to get caught flat-footed, trailing behind the growth of the industry, Marty argued.

Zmyewski did not depict viewpoints on frac-sand mining unique to Houston County.

A large contingent of local government officials and activists from southern Minnesota jammed a press conference at the State Capitol to plea for stricter oversight of an industry they portray as opportunistic, callous, environmentally destructive.

“Who’s going to benefit from that money?” Wabasha City Council Member Lynn Schoen replied when asked about the economic benefits of frac mining.

Having a frac mine might mean a few truck driving jobs, she argued, but it won’t offset wear and tear on roads and other negative impacts.

“Not all jobs are created equally,” Schoen said.

Others voiced concerns over the perceived threat of frac-sand dust.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), inhaling crystalline silica dust is a concern for humans.

Dust-sized particles, invisible to the naked eye, can reach deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream to enter other organs in the body.

People living downwind of frac-sand mining or processing could be exposed to low concentrations of the dust, an MDH publication reads.

Lung diseases, such as emphysema, are associated with silica-dust exposure. Silica is a known carcinogen that has also been associated with asthma and silicosis, a lung disease.

The dust question has one area lawmaker looking for a broader view.

“We’ve been considering this (risks of silica dust) from a worker’s perspective,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul.

“But I think we need to look at it from a community perspective,” said Hansen, who is carrying legislation related to frac-sand mining.

Mining industry officials appearing before a joint legislative committee argued that their companies have served the state for generations, are very conscientious, and want to be engaged in the debate.

“This area knows mining,” Scott Sustacek of Jordan Sands said.

Tiller Corporation officials, who operate the sand processing operation in North Branch, spoke of public hearings and buy-in from local government officials on their operation.

They rejected the idea of a generic environmental assessment, arguing each mining operation should be judged individually.

Further, industry officials argued the current permitting procedure is extensive.

Needed documentation concerning air emissions at the North Branch facility, said geologist Kristen Pauly, ran into hundreds of pages.

The industry is supportive of on-going ambient air quality monitoring, she noted.

According to Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, an environmental assessment worksheet is currently required for sand mining projects that develop 40 or more acres.

A more elaborate environmental impact statement is required for industrial sand mining projects that develop 160 acres or more.

According to a Environmental Quality Board (EQB) report, five mines have been identified in Minnesota that extract industrial silica sand.

One additional mine has come on-line since December of 2012.

Five counties, including Houston, have passed moratoriums on new silica sand mining permits.

One frac mine typically employs between 10 and 20 people, while 40 to 50 may work at a typical sand processing plant, according to the EQB report.

The Midwest leads the nation in sand and gravel production.

In 2010, the region mined 67 percent of the sand used in hydraulic fracturing, according to the report.

Although the most extensive silica-sand deposits exposed at or near the surface run in a widening belt from Chisago County to Fillmore and Houston counties to the south, limited silica-sand resources are located in Pine, Kanabec, Isanti, Sherburne, Anoka, Wright, Carver and other counties.

In counties such as Hennepin, Ramsey, and Scott, silica-sand resources are limited to river corridors, according to the EQB report.

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