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Frac-sand foes say new oversight plan offers too little, and may be too late

There are some new state-level rules in the offing, but they lie at the end of a timetable that stretches at least 18 months, probably two years, and possibly longer.

wisconsin frac operation
Cherie Hales: “Many of us don’t feel that industrial-scale mining is compatible with our lives, with agriculture and tourism.”

First of two articles

I sat in on two long, public conversations about the future of frac sand in Minnesota on Tuesday, and came away with a sense that wherever this industry may be heading, the element of surprise is no longer working in its favor.

That’s because the state’s environmental agencies, legislators and local officials have finally gotten over their deer-in-the-headlights condition of the past few years.

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It’s still far from clear, however, that an effective, cooperative and — most important — comprehensive approach to regulating silica sand production will replace an inadequate system that continues to treat mining, processing and transport as separate matters, and to delegate most key decisions to small-town councils and zoning boards with slim budgets and slight staffs.

There are some new state-level rules in the offing, officials said Tuesday, but they lie at the end of a timetable that stretches at least 18 months, probably two years, and quite possibly longer from today.

The first meeting took place in the afternoon at the high school in Wabasha — a city whose struggle with a bullying sand company is especially instructive — as the Environmental Quality Board concluded a set of three public hearings on its legislatively mandated program to bring some statewide coherence to the silica sand situation.

In addition to determining a threshold for environmental review of sand operations, EQB’s assignment is to assist local units by “develop(ing) standards and criteria” in 14 areas ranging from buffer zones and groundwater monitoring to dust control, inspection requirements, reclamation standards and hours of operation. (The full list is here, along with other details of the program.)

Minnesota DNR
The Minnesota DNR’s current map of counties with frac sand deposits.

When a first and admittedly hasty cut at this assignment was rolled out in mid-September, close on the Oct. 1 deadline for the project’s completion, reaction was swift and reportedly embarrassing. Rather than seeking further discussion of that document at Tuesday’s session, the EQB simply asked concerned citizens to address this open-ended question:

What do you believe the model standards and criteria for mining, processing, and transporting silica sand should be?

The EQB members present — commissioners Dave Frederickson of the Agriculture Department, Tom Landwehr of Natural Resources, John Linc Stine of the Pollution Control Agency, along with citizen member John Saxhaug and various agency staffers — got an earful of answers. Here is some of what they heard:

Craig Falkum, representing Friends of Wabasha, said the EQB standards should be broadened beyond environmental impacts to also consider social and economic impacts on, say, a tourism-dependent place like his home city.

A transloading site there may bring up to 560 sand trucks a day through town —while the extraction revenue and mining jobs remain across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin — and there is deep concern about whether dust released in transferring the sand from trucks to rail cars is of the same type regulated in workplaces as a cause of silicosis and cancer.

Although the transfer site is near a residential area and a hospital, he said, not even the lowest-level environmental or public-health analysis has been done. The Friends group believes some type of review should be mandatory at each phase of sand production, from mining through processing and transportation.

Eric Pierson, also of Wabasha, said he had recently moved to Minnesota from Wisconsin where he “saw local townships get snowed by the mine operators in part because the local government didn’t have any idea what to negotiate or where to start negotiating. They didn’t know how much money was on the table.”

He urged the EQB to make questions of jurisdiction and authority secondary to putting solid, science-based evidence on public-health risks into the hands of local decision makers, on issues from diesel exhaust to noise pollution.

Jeanne Pietig, a Wabasha County zoning official, said she was concerned that the Legislature’s use of the word “model” could lead to a single set of standards for operations whose issues and impacts are far from uniform across Minnesota’s varied topography:

“Why not develop one model for the driftless area [of southeastern Minnesota] and other areas of sensitive geology, and one for everyone else? I know the sand industry has argued that one size doesn’t fit all, and I agree. If you do come up with one size for all, it will be too lenient for our area.”

Cherie Hales of rural Winona County introduced “the people’s EIS scoping report,” published last month by the Land Stewardship Project, as well as a theme that proved to be popular as the meeting went on: that EQB provide not only model ordinances for regulating sand operators, but a legal foundation for banning them altogether:

“Many of us don’t feel that industrial-scale mining is compatible with our lives, with agriculture and tourism.”

Lynn Schoen, a Wabasha City Council member who gave a riveting account of that city’s struggle with Superior Sand in legislative testimony last February, called on EQB “to make sure you hit disclosure: We’ve got a business that may be selling [to new owners], may have new investors, may not, who’s in charge now, I don’t know … you’ve got to have rules that address what happens if there’s a change in the people you’re dealing with, because it’s hard to track down sometimes.”

If local governments are going to be in charge of enforcing new standards, she said, “we need staff and testing equipment, and we can’t afford to buy everything we need. If you can’t enforce it, don’t make the rule.”

Katie Himanga, a former mayor of Lake City and a forester specializing in “the most highly disturbed sites we have,” said she’s certain that “not a single acre in Wabasha County has been reclaimed from quarrying that has been going on for more than 100 years.”

She said she believes that “properties that are this highly disturbed’ by sand mining “will inevitably default into public ownership, and that’s me making a case for strong regulations on your part. It’s pretty easy to make these sites ‘green’ but we cannot make them whole. We need strong regulations from you to make it possible, someday, that these properties can be more than green hunting land.”

Alan Muller of Red Wing argued that just because the statute specifies 14 items on which the EQB must develop standards, it doesn’t prevent the list from growing longer: “These 14 items should be taken as a floor, not a ceiling. And it’s quite clear that people from this part of Minnesota are calling for additional items, one of which is a roadmap to banning sand mining.

“We need a regulatory framework that could prevent damage, prevent degradation of quality of life, damage to air quality and public health, to groundwater and surface water, to our local economies and so on,” not just to require repairs afterward.

Constance Anderson of Lake City, referencing earlier discussion of a rulemaking timetables at state agencies that will probably take two years or more, cautioned that “in the meantime, the frac mining industries are going to ride roughshod over communities, threatening lawsuits that townships are not capable of countering.”

She asked if the eventual standards could be made retroactive for mining companies — to which, of course, the answer is no — then called for a statewide moratorium until the rules are finished. And she charmed the audience with the story of all the permitting and appeal steps she had to go through for a remodeling of a porch on her house, with a nonstandard sort of railing — concluding, “Why does something like a porch railing hold more substance, in terms of accountability, than what the mining companies are able to do to our land, to our air, to our water, to our people, and to tourism?”

But the show stopper may have been Louy Stambaugh of Lake City, who referenced earlier comments contrasting tight regulation of asbestos exposure with lax standards for dust associated with sand operations, and said:

“I live right on Hwy. 61, and my bedroom is 40 feet, maybe 50 feet from the highway. Someone brought to me this little thing about the OSHA standards, and I say, I wish my bedroom was in the mine because then I’d have more protection!”

* * *

Tuesday’s hearing was of course open to proponents of silica sand development as well as opponents, and several speakers mentioned seeing industry lawyers present in the auditorium. But I can’t tell you what their thoughts on the issues might be, for they spoke not a word.

* * *

Tomorrow: A panel convened in Mahtomedi discusses sand mining’s future in Washington County and elsewhere.