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Legislators get earful on frac sand; public can get crash course on issues

Hearings at the Legislature are a long look at problems associated with Minnesota’s role in the national oil-and-gas boom.

Wellsboro & Corning Railroad COO Bill Myles showing a sample of the high grade sand used by energy companies for drilling natural gas wells in Pennsylvania.
REUTERS/Adam Fenster

I am a new city council person for Wabasha, Minnesota. If you had asked me about frac sand a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about it, but my Wisconsin friends invited me to come over to their neighborhoods and see for myself what was happening.

I learned that frac-sand businesses and owners use a certain rhetoric to make themselves seem more neighborly. I also learned that these same companies act like bullies when communities try to hold them to local zoning that may not fit into their plans. Wabasha now has a frac-sand trans-load facility developing in our industrial zone. Superior Sand from Canada cut a deal with the Canadian Pacific railroad so their local business activities would fall under the federal pre-emption laws.

Our conditional-use permit has some conditions they have agreed to follow, but our planning commission made some serious accommodations to pacify the company under the threat of a lawsuit. They are permitted to run 300 truckloads [of sand from Wisconsin], which is 600 trips, during the weekdays. We have a second company asking for an additional 150 trucks.

This is an industry at odds with the economy of Wabasha.

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—From Lynn Schoen’s testimony before committees of the Minnesota Legislature on Feb. 19 (and lightly compressed here).

A remarkable hearing took place at the capitol on Tuesday afternoon, when Senate and House  committees took their first long look at problems associated with Minnesota’s role in the national oil-and-gas boom.

So remarkable that, at the risk of inviting ridicule, I recommend you carve out some time to watch it. I frankly can’t imagine a better, up-to-the-moment survey of issues that are rapidly moving toward the top  of Minnesota’s environmental and public health concerns.

The whole show runs a bit over two hours and features dozens of witnesses, drawn from all over the frac-sand map and all sides of the issues, speaking for two, three, maybe five minutes apiece under the firm clockwatching of Sen. John Marty.

No long diatribes here. No PowerPoints. No plodding recitations of statute nor lawmaker posturing. Just a far-reaching, coherent and generally temperate series of presentations by people on all sides of the story, from environmental regulators to business executives to anti-mining activists to small-town mayors.

Official Senate video is available here in Flash format and here for Windows Media Player; the UpTake offers a prettier, MP4 version here.

A joint meeting, held Tuesday, of the Minnesota Senate Committee on Environment & Energy and the House Committee on Energy Policy.

What should state role be?

If the hearing has a unifying theme, it would be the question of whether the current level of state involvement in regulating sand operations is adequate. I won’t be giving away a plot point in disclosing that the business representatives who spoke on Tuesday generally felt that it was, the state agency reps stayed largely neutral and pretty much everybody else saw an expanded state role as necessary, urgent and overdue.

The disputes around sand operations are not always as simple, nor the divisions as clear and predictable, as on other environmental issues. This is not always clear from routine news coverage, in which opponents can sound like people who just don’t like fracking, period, or would prefer to push the necessary unpleasantness out of their backyards and into someone else’s, or resent a neighbor’s getting rich off sand.

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Local governments feel overwhelmed by a regulatory role they lack the technical expertise, experience or resources to shoulder, and very often they feel bullied or bamboozled.

The Wabasha experience, described by Lynn Schoen at the top of this post, is a decent case in point, and one whose key facts do not seem to be much in dispute. (Other speakers were far less measured in their telling.)

Indeed, if anybody except the company is actually enthusiastic about the Superior Sands project there, I have been unable to detect it in press accounts — including Tony Kennedy’s fine and fair-minded piece last December, part of the Strib’s ongoing Frac Sand Fever project — or in conversations of my own.

It’s kind of hard to imagine what city of 2,500 people — or 25,000, even 250,000 — would happily trade 900 new heavy-truck trips per day for the 18 jobs Wabasha may get in exchange.

Friends of Wabasha, the group formed to press for review of the project, includes people concerned about their own property values, to be sure. But they’re also concerned about harm to Wabasha’s tourism economy and general quality of life.

They found their dealings with the city not so much adversarial, I’ve been told, as simply ineffectual because staff and elected officials seemed frozen by fear of a costly legal battle. And this is an experience that seems common as dust throughout the spreading silica-sand belt.

Rules built for gravel pits

As for state regulation, the facilities where sand is mined, washed, dried and loaded for transport are typically subject to basic state-level permitting for smokestack-type emissions and discharges into surface or ground water. But the actual mining is regulated under rules designed for quarries and gravel pits, typically smaller and more scattered than the new frac-sand infrastructure.

As for silica itself, legislators were reminded repeatedly on Tuesday that OSHA-type rules limiting on-the-job exposure to sand and dust don’t extend offsite. Cancer and the lung disease silicosis have been attributed to particles in the workplace but there is little data as yet about the risks of living near a sand mine or processing plant.

The Legislature’s intended direction may become clearer next week, when hearings turn to specific proposals.

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Judging from Tuesday’s testimony, the remedies most favored at the moment are stricter state regulation, stronger state support for municipalities in carrying out the regulatory responsibilities left to them, and a statewide moratorium on new sand operations to replace the scattered county, city and township measures that have been adopted in recent years but are now expiring.

Not surprisingly, industry representatives generally favor leaving regulation at the local level.

Meanwhile, the state Environmental Quality Board has been considering whether to order a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) for sand operations. The purpose of the GEIS is to consider the cumulative impact of industrial-scale developments at scattered sites — like animal feedlots, for a recent example.

Companies’ ability to scatter related operations among different jurisdictions — even to seek annexation to a more favorable locality from a less favorable one — have become part of the frac-sand story in both Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Just two weeks ago, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Health Department pushed Winona County to undertake an in-depth study of the combined impact of a half-dozen mines and processing sites. Local officials responded that they weren’t sure they had the expertise or money to comply.

Yesterday, Minnesota Sands LLC volunteered to conduct a full environmental review of its operations in the county, dropping its earlier resistance and saying the agencies’ urging had motivated the change.