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Frac mining’s pros and cons: Debate focuses on southeastern Minnesota

Jim Gurley, a frac sand mining opponent
MinnPost photo by Judy Keen
Jim Gurley, a frac sand mining opponent, at the site of three proposed mines in Winona County's Saratoga Township.

WINONA — Driving along County Road 6 in Winona County's Saratoga Township on a warm afternoon, Jim Gurley looks at the rolling farmland and gentle mesas and sees trouble on the horizon.

The township could soon be the site of three mines that would produce silica sand, a key ingredient in the hydraulic fracturing process that's used to extract oil and natural gas.

Gurley, a member of Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Mining, worries southeastern Minnesota will soon be a hub of the growing industry.

Mining companies, he says, seem to "have the intent to produce as many mines as possible."

"We're in danger of an imminent boom," he says. "Everything is at stake. The beauty of the area is under threat, the environmental health of the area and the pristine nature of our area are under threat, the health of our residents is at risk."

Mitchell Bublitz, spokesman for Minnesota Sands, the company that wants to open two of the three pending Saratoga Township mines and holds leases in Fillmore and Houston counties, disagrees with Gurley on every one of those concerns -- except his prediction of a rapid expansion of the sand mining industry here.

"There will be a boom around the corner," Bublitz says. "This is the tip of the iceberg."

Local control

Debate over frac sand mining has been evolving for a couple of years, but the divide has sharpened in the past few weeks. The Minnesota Legislature did not enact a proposed mining moratorium or broader state regulatory authority in this year's session, keeping the action at the local government level.

Winona County's mining moratorium expired in 2012. The Board of Commissioners last month approved an operating permit for a 19-acre Saratoga Township mine after deciding not to require a detailed environmental review. It would be the state's eighth or ninth active mine and the second in Winona County. Last week, a dozen Winona County residents asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to stop the mine's opening, arguing that environmental impacts were not properly addressed.

Minnesota Sands agreed to full environmental impact statements on its two pending Saratoga Township mines.

Other Minnesota communities also are wrestling with the issue. In June, Goodhue County adopted new regulations that limit mines to 40 acres; its moratorium expires in August. The Houston County Board voted in March to extend its moratorium until March 2014. The owners of a frac sand rail loading facility in Wabasha on July 1 filed a complaint in U.S. District Court arguing that the city doesn't have the authority to require a conditional use permit.

Mining opponents have scored some recent victories, even in Wisconsin, where the industry has expanded from a handful of facilities in 2010 to the nation's largest, with at least 105 mines and 65 processing sites. Last month the Pepin County Board made a 10-mile strip of bluff land on the Wisconsin side of Lake Pepin a frac-free zone. In Iowa, where there is one active mine, supervisors in Alamakee and Winneshiek counties approved 18-month moratoriums this year.

Piles of frac sand, background, at a processing facility in Winona.
MinnPost photo by Judy KeenPiles of frac sand, background, at a processing facility in Winona.

Those efforts are evidence of the profit potential of silica sand and the increasingly aggressive moves of mining companies to expand operations in the area's rich deposits of the sort of sand that's ideal for the oil and natural gas industries.

Despite fluctuations in the price of natural gas and oil, Minnesota Sands' Bublitz expects demand to grow. "There are coal-fired plants that are generating electricity via coal and they're switching over to cleaner-burning natural gas," he says.

Southeastern Minnesota's unique sandstone

The sandstone in southeastern Minnesota and neighboring states is uniquely suited to hydraulic fracturing because of its shape, strength and accessibility and because it is chemically inert, meaning it won't dissolve during the fracking process, says Tony Runkel, chief geologist with the Minnesota Geological Survey.

The sand was formed millions of years ago, he says, when it was deposited along the shoreline of a shallow sea. Over time, Runkel says, other minerals were washed away, leaving behind mostly quartz, a "very strong, common and relatively inexpensive mineral." Wind abrasion shaped the quartz into hard, round beads.

Quartz sand exists across much of North America, he says, but "the reason everyone's coming to Minnesota and Wisconsin" to mine it is close to the surface, not buried under large rock that has to be blasted away.

"There are hundreds of thousands of acres [of the sand] in Minnesota and Wisconsin alone that are at or near the landscape," Runkel says.

The sand is so close to the surface that it flakes off the bluffs that rise around the Mississippi River and collects at their bases. Those flat-topped mesas that Gurley admires consist of layers of sand interspersed between layers of limestone and other rock. He worries that if mining flattens them out, the quality of the water that is filtered through those layers will be degraded.

Vince Ready, who has raised cattle and Clydesdale horses on about 30 acres in Saratoga Township for 35 years, helped block plans for a frac sand washing plant in nearby St. Charles. Before that, he had never gotten involved in political issues.

"Our house is on top of a frac sand deposit and I'm not going to sell," he says, but plenty of his neighbors have sold mining rights on their property, increasing tensions in the community."There is an economic advantage if you have sand on your land, but some people have more moral fiber than that."

Ready fears that an explosion in sand mining would drive away tourists drawn to the area for its peaceful landscapes, trout fishing and Amish agriculture. He envisions hundreds of semi-trucks loaded with sand roaring through small towns daily would force small, locally owned businesses to close. And, like many mining opponents, he worries that health problems from inhalation of silica dust, including the lung disease silicosis, will surface in a couple of decades.

The Legislature did create a new permitting role for the Department of Natural Resources for mines near trout streams and new air quality rules for particulate emissions will be written by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Frac sand being loaded onto a barge on the Mississippi River in Winona.
MinnPost photo by Judy KeenFrac sand being loaded onto a barge on the Mississippi River in Winona.

Bublitz says most of those fears are unfounded. There's no proof that silica dust will make people sick, he says, and mining companies pledge to restore the landscape after mines are closed. The industry creates good jobs and helps farmers stay in business by buying their land or paying for mineral rights by offering "$100,000 for that hill over there that is absolutely worthless," he says.

Gurley, who has become a full-time activist in the fight to keep frac sand mines from setting up shop here, believes that once people know the full ramifications of mining, they will try to stop it. The economic benefits of mining are "the only argument the industry has: sand equals jobs. And it will bring some jobs," he acknowledges, but not enough to offset a potential loss in Winona County's tourism revenue.

Winona County's unemployment rate in May was 4.7 per cent; the state rate was 5.3 per cent.

Lessons from Wisconsin

Joan Schnabel lives across the Mississippi from Winona in Buffalo County, Wis. The first frac sand mines there were approved almost two years ago and two are now operating. Minnesota communities can learn a lesson from those in Wisconsin, where the industry is much more advanced, she says: "If you do not take an interest in your local government, you will rue the day."

Mining opponents there were "sound asleep" when the first applications were filed, Schnabel says, and only after that did they begin working to elect members of city councils, county boards and local zoning panels who share their views. "There have always been gravel quarries in these rural areas," she says, "and people didn't get the scope of what's involved in these frac sand mines."

Gurley says it's vital, absent stronger state regulations, for local activists to work together to prevent mining companies from cherry-picking locations where there's less political resistance. "This is a regional phenomenon and a regional problem," he says. "I believe that legally our governments in this part of the state can ban this industry."

Mining can be stopped if area residents "stand up and elect people who care about the environment," Ready says. He thinks it's too easy for some legislators to dismiss concerns in the area. "Say you went to the shores of Lake Minnetonka and dug up a sand pit there," he says. "It wouldn't even have a five-minute shelf life."

Opponents are motivated, he says. "A lot of people are mad as hell."

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Comments (9)

Best one I've heard all week

"mining companies pledge to restore the landscape after mines are closed"

Ha... hah.... hahahahahah!!!

It's really about the war against coal

President Obama has announced his opposition to coal burning, justifiably popular among environmentalists, as coal produces all those noxious particulates as well as the GHG CO2. There are expensive controls for the particulates, but they are not being implemented worldwide. Not much can be done about CO2 emissions.
Aside from turning off lights and electric machinery, the only currently practical replacement for coal is to burn natural gas(NG). Nuclear works, but initial cost and radiation panic prevents that logical approach.
But in order to get the NG, we need to crack shale(fracking), and to keep the cracks open so the oil and gas can come out, we need a lot of a certain type of local sand. One fracking well uses tons of sand.
So we have another example of the no free lunch syndrome. You don't want polluting coal, then you are stuck with sand mines.
Excel Energy's Sherco coal plant emits more than 15 million tons of yearly CO2, plus mercury, sulfur, etc. You can replace it with 2 or 3 combined cycle NG plants like the ones that replaced smaller coal plants in the Twin Cities. Or you can build one Westinghouse AP 1000 nuke plant like the ones going up in Georgia, South Carolina, and China. Wind and solar are green supplements, but they can't replace a big base load power plant.

So, how about "turning off lights and electric machinery"?

This is not the place to explore fundamental questions of political economy, but our high level of energy consumption, aside from its insustainability, really doesn't improve our quality of life. We have a growth economy for two major reasons: it supplies social rents to capital and it substitutes for a rational structure of distributing social wealth. The best thing about climate change is that it ought to have given us the impetus for a major reduction in our level of economic activity that would benefit both the planet & our quality of life greatly. We ought to be able to distinguish between innovation and economic activity that improves quality of life and that which is just economic and existential waste. The reasons why we can't manage this are readily explained by orthodox market failure theory.

I'm just a bit tired of all of the discussion about energy and climate change that treats growth in energy consumption as inalterable & then just debates which means of satisfying the consumption need will destroy our planet and our civilization least rapidly. And Rolf, you may be correct in your ongoing argument that (under certain assumptions of expertise) nuclear is better than fossil fuels, but it's a straw argument so long as we continue to avoid the alternative of delinking quality of life from energy consumption.

Retire the carbon beast

Industrial sand mining is a dangerous brain-cramp gone wild in Wisconsin. It feeds into fracking, which is prohibited by many nations. The reckless and way it has been practiced in this country is criminal. We are at a very important crossroads here in the United States. We can buy into the carbon industry propaganda, and destroy fossil water, a resource we all share, or we can make a serious commitment to re-tooling our energy infrastructure. I have seen far too many environmental disasters from these carbon goons, to want to give them any further opportunity to destroy our planet. Willful water destruction is a serious crime. It's time that fact be widely recognized.
Prime Minister Harper of Canada has been extremely ham-handed in his dealings with tribal and Metis nations. He's been trying to jam down their throats, endless mining, tar sands destruction and waste, and railroad transport of carbon concoctions to eastern Canadian markets. Lac-Megantic is the latest in a long litany of carbon disasters. Seems like one huge carbon pollution event weekly now.
This is certainly not an endorsement for pipelines. No indeed. It's time to tax the hell out of carbon and make it be a distant memory.

Keep on truckin'

Winona's City Hall is committed to facilitating the use of our rail and barge facilities for frac sand shipping. Since I live downtown near the bridge from Wisconsin, I thought the least that could be done would be expand the areas where trucks are prohibited from using their "jake brakes". I was told that it's not going to happen because the truckers know from experience that it won't be enforced.

auxiliary impacts

The processing and transportation of frac sand must be considered part and parcel of the frac sand debate, and for now it has barely been mentioned. While the impacts of these auxiliary operations are not as visual as the mines themselves, they can be very significant in terms of fugitive dust and traffic impacts on the quality of life in this rural area.

fracing technology

Fracing is a relatively new technology and it will certainly evolve by using less water and sand. Prices for water in ND have been slowly increasing and water recycling technology is getting a lot of attention. Composite 'sand' from China is being used more in fracing because it requires less material than using sand but it is more expensive to use, as composites become less expensive they could displace sand. The USGS is looking for fracing sanding sand in the Dakota's.
I would expect the oil boom in ND to last for at least another decade but the sand rush in MN/WI may be over in a few years.

By then the damage will be done

And depending on any corporation to take care of any damage to the environment is pure delusion. Moreover, any request for water from no dak should be laughed at by MN.

fracking carbon boondoggle

See what informed inside finance people think about fracking as an investment. Google Deborah Rogers and read her take on the economics of fracking. She is credentialed and authoritative. Fracking is a desperate measure, a sign of despair. The fact that it was rammed down our throats by a complacent, despised congress in the form of the 'halliburton exclusion'(from water damage prosecutions)...is itself criminal. Most Immediate relief would be to trash the halliburton exclusion and begin to prosecute water violations. This insane idea that a company can shoot any vile fliud into Mother Earth's bosom, and not divulge the contents because it's a proprietary formula, has to stop. We all drink from the earth. Julius Ceaser drank the same water you and I do. Breathed the same air. We are part of nature, and when we harm the natural environment, we harm ourselves. We have not yet acknowledged that harm with a tax. Now would be good.