What the Frac? An UpTake Guide to the Sand Fracking Debate

Minnesota State Capitol Building Dome

By Sally Jo Sorensen, Bluestem Prairie
UpTake Contributor

Here is an UpTake guide to the frac sand hearing held today by a joint meeting of the Minnesota Senate Committee on Environment & Energy and the House Committee on Energy Policy. Video replay of the meeting above.

Overview

The first time that fracking has been on the Legislature’s agenda, today’s hearing is expected to draw busloads of opponents from counties along the Mississippi River Valley in southeastern Minnesota, where silica sand deposits have spurred a sudden growth in industrial sand mining.

Alarmed by the transformation of southwestern Wisconsin into a pockmarked landscape of sand pits, Minnesotans began organizing grassroots resistance to industrial scale silica sand mining in 2011, demanding that local governments place a moratorium on new mines and processing.

Mining interests have dismissed opponents as ill-informed Nimbys, while touting the jobs sand mining creates when 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 oil-extracting process in states such as North Dakota is controversial in itself, no fracking takes place in Minnesota. Citizen opposition stems from concerns over the health, safety and environmental implications peculiar to sand mining.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said in December that he expected fracking to be a “huge” issue during this year’s legislative session and Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said today’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. Jim Gurley, a Winona, Minn., activist who has been a leader in the fight against frac sand mining, says a state moratorium is important because the large-scale environmental study opponents are seeking might take more than a year. Without a state moratorium, there will be little to stop the industry from moving ahead once the local roadblocks expire.

The Players: Pro and Con

At a meeting of the state Environmental Quality Board last September, the line was “Jobs, jobs, jobs:” Frac sand mining proponents argue that an environmental review isn’t needed, 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 regulation or 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 from the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council (MISC), a new mining lobby of the Aggregate and Ready-Mix Association of Minnesota.

Recently, MISC hired Red Wing, Minn., Mayor Dennis Egan as its executive director, a controversial move criticized by mining opponents as inappropriate.

(UpDate: Media reports on Saturday, Feb. 23, indicate that Egan has decided to quit his job as Red Wing’s mayor as of April 1. Stay on The UpTake for more frac sand mining updates),

Other lobbyists hired by MISC include civil engineer Kirsten Pauly. She spoke in support of the industry at the EQB meeting last fall; in January, KEYC-TV in Mankato, Minn., 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 rewards local officials who support mining proposals. Moreover, lucrative ownership and annexation changes such as have been seen in Wisconsin cause mining opponents to warn that local permit protections can melt away suddenly.

Health and safety concerns rank highest but aren’t the matters most residents say they worry about. 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, Minn., the gateway to Whitewater State Park, and small town tourist-mecca Lanesboro, Minn., fret about the impact on the tourism industry while farmers worry about water and soil contamination. Ponds holding silica sand slurry have burst in Wisconsin, contaminating surface water. Other opponents worry about groundwater and wellhead contamination.

Citizen opponents are organized in groups such as Save The Bluffs in Goodhue County (Red Wing is the county seat) to the Houston County Protectors. The Land Stewardship Project, which maintains a field office in Lewiston, Minn., is hosting an 11:00 a.m. Capitol press conference today before the hearing, featuring two busloads of opponents. 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 watching the Uptake’s live coverage of today’s hearing can also anticipate staff testimony from an alphabet soup of state agencies. 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 today but the senate Committee on Environment & Energy will further discuss silica sand mining bills next Tuesday, Feb. 26, at noon in Room 123 of the Capitol. Bills will be added to the agenda as they are introduced.

So far, Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul), has introduced the only bill on file relating to frac sand mining. His bill, 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 Feb. 26 hearing.

A native of Southern Minnesota, writer and researcher Sally Jo Sorensen blogs about rural Minnesota at Bluestem Prairie. She received the Good Media Award 2012 from Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) in February 2013.

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