Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Minnesota’s frac-sand future, with lessons from Wisconsin, explored by panel

Two local leaders, a legislator, an industry lobbyist and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr discussed the prospects for and issues related to sand production and regulation in Minnesota.

frac sand piles
Lobbyist Dennis Egan: “I want to make the point that Minnesota is not Wisconsin. We have nine silica sand operations in Minnesota, and three permits issued in the last 12 to 18 months.”

Second of two articles.

More than 300 people packed a sanctuary in Mahtomedi on Tuesday evening to hear a panel discuss whether frac sand mining, the source of so much conflict in southeastern Minnesota, might also be coming to leafy, wealthy Washington County.

This turns out to be a question of little urgency, because the sand companies feel they have better options elsewhere.

But it opened up an interesting, broader discussion on the future of sand production and regulation in Minnesota, with two local leaders, a legislator, an industry lobbyist and Tom Landwehr, who heads the Department of Natural Resources, holding forth under the deft moderation of Don Shelby.

Article continues after advertisement

Landwehr, who had been on the listening end at citizen’s forum earlier in the day, put the overall sand situation into sharp focus with his answer to the can-it-happen-here question. He explained that the prospect of mining in any part of Minnesota with good silica sand deposits really rests on just three factors:

  • “Is the demand there? The answer is yes, although I think it’s been softening nationwide as supply has been growing.”
  • “Is the resource there? You should know that in southern Washington County and northern Washington County, along the St. Croix River, there are deposits of silica sand within 50 feet of the surface,” the criterion that makes them worth mining.
  • “But the important question is, what is the regulatory/statutory framework around the extraction of silica sand?”

And as most Minnesotans know by now, that framework is very much a work in progress.

The state-level oversight applied by the DNR and other agencies to the mining of iron and other metals doesn’t apply to sand mining, whose regulation is left primarily to zoning boards and other local government units.

The state has begun to ramp up its assistance to local officials with model standards and technical advice, and state agencies are updating their own rules in regard to some aspects of sand production.

But efforts to significantly increase state oversight, to impose a comprehensive environmental review of the industry, or to enact a short-term moratorium have failed, so far, to win legislative approval.

Joining Landwehr on the panel were:

Fred Harding of Maiden Rock, Wis., a former plan commission chairman who waged a long and somewhat personal fight against a sand mine in his town on Lake Pepin, and implored Minnesotans — that is not too strong a verb — to learn from Wisconsin’s sad mistakes.

Bill Spitzer, the mayor of St. Charles, Minn., who told how his community had been splintered by a proposal, ultimately rejected, for a sand-processing plant.

State Rep. Peter Fischer, a first-term DFLer from Maplewood, who said the Legislature will surely revisit sand mining and could still enact some of the additional controls rejected this year.

Article continues after advertisement

Dennis Egan, the former Red Wing mayor turned sand-industry lobbyist, who assured everyone that the member companies of his Minnesota Industrial Sand Council are more responsible and community-minded than their Wisconsin counterparts.

Here are some of their comments, lightly compressed and in some cases out of sequence, that might be most important to Minnesotans considering the kind of future they want for frac-sand operations:

Harding: “If the role of local government is to protect the health and well-being of those who do not benefit from mining, why didn’t Wisconsin governments act? We concluded that local governments are not prepared to handle the influx of sand mine, and, sadly, many local officials didn’t do their homework.

“Our village attorney, a good man, was matched up against the man who helped gerrymander the state of Wisconsin. He was overmatched.”

Spitzer: The city of St. Charles and an adjoining township spent the best part of two years doing their homework on silica sand after the processing plant was proposed, and were “cautiously optimistic” that a consensus could be reached through extensive discussion and debate.

In the end, though, the city council rejected an annexation necessary to the project and “there were no winners in the process. There were, however, some losers: people lost friendships, people lost their values, and they lost trust.”  The community remains divided.

Egan: “I want to make the point that Minnesota is not Wisconsin. We have nine silica sand operations in Minnesota, and three permits issued in the last 12 to 18 months. The silica sand industry in Minnesota is in its infancy,” and doesn’t anticipate the kind of boom that has moved opponents to seek a moratorium on its expansion.

“The individuals I’m working with are Minnesota businesses, Minnesota companies that have operated for a long period of time,” in most cases producing aggregate or building stone, or small quantities of silica sand for, say, glassmaking or metal casting.

Rising demand for franc sand has moved some of these companies in a new direction, but not necessarily to new locations, Egan said, because sand deposits were available in locations already being mined or left dormant, especially around Mankato.

Article continues after advertisement

The companies have conducted environmental studies when required, and sometimes voluntarily, and comply with OSHA rules on dust and workplace safety. The dust can be controlled, and isn’t so very different from silica dust stirred up by farmers tilling soil.

(That last observation drew a sharp rebuttal from Harding: “Particle size matters. The fact of the matter is that dust that comes off a gravel road, off of a farm, is physically larger than dust coming off in fugitive form from the mining process … and miners are exposed to wet dust, before the drying and grinding process.”)

Landwehr: The state is preparing new rules to defining the size of a sand mine that requires environmental review. It is drawing up model standards for local governments to reference in regulating sand operations, and has assembled a technical advisory team of experts from state agencies to assist them.

These actions “change the scene dramatically in terms of how the state agencies are involved, but at the end of the day it’s still a local zoning issue and so the decision to permit or not permit falls to local government.”

Fischer:  A newer concern for some legislators is that “this industry uses huge amounts of water —some of these mines in Wisconsin use half a million to 2 million gallons of water a day.” In addition to placing that demand on surface or groundwater supplies, Fischer said, there is concern about how it is processed and disposed of after use. (Harding said the Maiden Rock mine uses 1.4 million gallons daily.)

Landwehr: “Most of the small mining operations that are proposed in Minnesota propose to mine the sand here and wash it somewhere else,” so the water requirements are lower. But there are gaps in the regulatory structure, “because we don’t have a way to address cumulative impacts. We have the ability to look at a single mining operation and say, OK, here’s what’s going to happen with water as a result of that mine. We don’t have the ability to work through the local governments and say, OK, what if 20 of them are out there?”

Egan: “Water is money,” and most Minnesota operations have a closed-loop cycle in which water is recycled and reused, replacing only the quantities lost to evaporation. And, in any case, the water used by the sand industry — and even all industry — in Minnesota is a relatively small part of overall consumption.

Fischer, answering an audience question about what new legislation can be expected in 2014, said the possibilities include:

  • An excise tax on sand mined in Minnesota and shipped elsewhere, to cover some of the costs of new regulation.
  • Authorizing a generic environmental impact statement to consider the overall and cumulative impacts of all sand-production operations
  • A prohibition on DNR’s leasing state lands for sand production
  • Creating a joint-powers board for southeastern Minnesota counties to coordinate regulation of sand operations, and
  • Empowering the state Environmental Quality Board to overrule, in certain cases, a local government’s decision to let a sand project go forward without environmental review.

* * *

Article continues after advertisement

The Mahtomedi forum took place at the White Bear Lake Unitarian Universalist Church (where, I happily disclose, I like to go to services sometimes). The session was organized by River Valley Action and sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the church’s Climate Change Committee, the Izaak Walton League, the Mahtomedi Area Green Initiative, the Saint Andrew’s Environmental Stewardship Team, Friends of Washington County and the St. Croix River Association.