State’s First Frac Sand Hearing Proves, Well, Fractious

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By Sally Jo Sorensen, Bluestem Prairie
UpTake Contributor

Southeastern Minnesota’s bluff country from Red Wing to the Iowa border and the Minnesota River valley from the Metro to Mankato have been strangers to the sort of divisions with which mining politics have cursed Northeastern Minnesota. Until now, anyway. Tuesday’s joint Legislative committee hearing on the problems of frac sand mining has ended that blessing.

(A video replay of the meeting — the first Legislative hearing on the issue — is above).

Testimony revealed deep fractures between — on one side — grassroots citizens, conservation organizations and local governments seeking regulatory relief and — on the other — representatives from the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, a trucking company owner, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the powerful “49ers” or International Union of Operating Engineers.

Those fault lines, with powerful interests allied on the side of the industry, may make passage of new legislation difficult despite the overwhelming numbers of grassroots frac sand critics who packed two hearing rooms for the testimony, including 70 people who rode buses to St. Paul from Southeastern Minnesota.

The number of critics testifying dwarfed the number of industry supporters.

Some unusual alliances that crossed political boundaries cropped up: Former state senator John Howe, R-Red Wing, spoke in favor of ordering an environmental impact statement on the issue, while the man who defeated him last fall, Matt Schmit (DFL-Red Wing), is expected to introduce legislation to mandate and fund such a study. Howe served as Mayor of Red Wing until the beginning of 2011, when he resigned to take his seat in the state senate. While he and his Senate successor appear to be on the same side, current Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan joined the other side, taking a job as executive director of the Sand Council. Egan, who gave notice on Feb. 23 that he plans to resign his mayor’s position, did not testify.

Dave Frederickson, state agriculture commissioner, spoke in his role as chair of the state Environmental Quality Board, noting that the issue of frac sand mining had come up during recent citizen forums across the state, especially in the Rochester session.

Citizens had petitioned the EQB for an GEIS and given testimony for a study at a EQB meeting, and pro-mining interests had been given time at a following meeting to present their position. Frederickson said that while the board has the authority to order a study, it must also secure funding for the expensive studies from the legislature.

Representatives from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation testified about their agencies regulatory authority and concerns. New to the debate: MNDOT concern that vistas on U.S. Hwy. 61, the Great River Road, might not be so great if sight lines are disrupted by mines.

Township and county elected officials testified that they need the state’s help to negotiate the complicated regulatory issues posed by the massive new scale of industrial sand mines being proposed in their communities. This scale has created a much different regulatory environment than that which they’ve faced with the gravel and sand pits that now operate — usually just a few dozen acres at most.

Preble Township (Fillmore County) board supervisor David Williams, a retired lawyer who had served on the county’s task force on industrial sand mining, recited a litany of complex air and water quality, transportation and public health issues local government uncovered.

“Recent experience seems to show that when local government decision makers cannot find answers to the questions about public health, environmental, transportation and economic issues, these decisionmakers tend to freeze,” Williams said. “They freeze in place and they make no effort to provide real solutions on the local level. They need the scientific help from state agencies to even help them make decisions in addition to the decisions they are making for themselves.”

That view was underscored by Chippewa Falls, Wis., “fractivist” (frac sand activist) Pat Popple, who shared the experience of her community:

“In Wisconsin, we have had numerous spills from several mines. Not all are reported; in fact, most of them…have been reported by citizens. A flood at (one) plant while it was under construction…poured all sorts of things into the St. Croix River and that is now under litigation and investigation by the attorney general and other agencies.

“In the Larkin Valley near Blair, Wis., there was a major breach. A five-foot wall of water and sludge took out an Amish barn and other buildings…and Trout Creek in Chippewa County, also reported by a citizen, a wastewater pond gave way and spilled into the creek. The fine by the county of a little over $4,100 will never pay to recover that creek, and the fish and trout that are in it.”

Sigurd Anderson of Lake City, Minn., testified that after months of meetings with citizens and local and county officials:

“It became clear to many of use that local and county government agencies and officials did not have the background, training, technical expertise, time, staff or monetary resources to adequately respond to the power and skill of mining companies backed by multinational energy corporations and the implied consent of federal agencies.”

Land Stewardship Project legislative director Bobby King called for rewriting the state’s non-metallic mining standards and a moratorium on new mining, citing the state’s experience during the process of writing feedlot regulations. He pointed out that state agencies and local control could work together. Local elected officials were asking for state help in permitting but wanted state regulations that would establish a floor that would still allow local government to set conditions in their permitting and to write their own zoning and land use ordinances.

Red Wing City council member Peggy Rehder also testified, presenting a resolution the city council had adopted favoring an environmental study and a moratorium.

The Minnesota Industrial Sand Council was represented by Aggregate and Ready Mix Association of Minnesota president Fred Corrigan, executives from Jordan Sand and Bryan Rock, and consulting geologist and civil engineer Kirsten Pauly of Sunde Engineering. Others testifying for the sand mining industry included a trucking company owner, Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Jason George, the 49ers political director.

Like the mine owners, Kwilas stressed that the sand industry had been in place for over 100 years in Minnesota, with some operations on their second or third generation of family owners deeply embedded in the civic and economic life of their communities. He also noted that the sand they extracted wasn’t merely used for fracking, but for abrasives, filtration systems, in glass, in tubs and sinks and golf course. “If you’re as bad a golfer as I am,” he said, “much to my chagrin, it’s used on our golf courses where my ball ends up when I hit wayward shots.”

Kwilas urged lawmakers to remember that the industry provided jobs now, could provide potential jobs, and that it was important to find “a delicate balance” to promote these jobs in a struggling economy while also protecting the environment and natural resources. Greater Mankato Growth (the local chamber) has estimated that for every job created, 1.8 other jobs are generated. Sand mining is “one of the most heavily regulated industries that we have in this state,” Kwilas said.

Kwilas turned the mic over to Jason George, legislative and political director of the 49ers, in a show of business and labor cooperation. There are about 13,000 heavy equipment operators in three states, hundreds of whom work aggregate and sand mining and are union members, George said, noting that they work in permanent full-time positions paying between $25-$30 per hour with health insurance for families and pensions. 49ers working in pits also enjoy less travel time to work and more time with their families than other members who work in construction and must travel to distant job sites.

“What you do here this session will have consequences,” George said. “There are complex issues to debate when it comes to sand mining, as you’ve heard today. You’ve heard both sides of it. Far too often in this political climate, the answer to complex issues is a simple ‘No.’ We believe a statewide moratorium or a GEIS is a simple ‘No.’ I’m asking you, and much more importantly, the people who are here today and the people that I’m representing are asking you, that want to make a future working in this industry are asking you, let’s find a way to say ‘Yes,’ to find a way that protects the environment and creates these good family-sustaining jobs.

Next up: The Senate Committee on Environment and Energy will discuss silica sand mining bills 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. 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 Tuesday’s hearing.

Photos: All chairs in the second overflow hearing room were filled with sand mining supporters and critics; several dozen people listened while seated on the floor (above). Mining workers waiting to enter committee room (below)

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Sally Jo Sorensen is a native of Southern Minnesota, a writer and researcher who blogs about rural Minnesota at Bluestem Prairie. She received the Good Media Award 2012 from Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) in February 2013. In addition to this report, Sorensen provided The UpTake with the following Guide to the Sand Frac Mining Issue, which was published here on Feb. 19.

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.

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.

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