State lawmakers are debating whether Minnesota should place tougher regulations on frac sand mining. It's a growing industry that provides a key ingredient -- silica sand -- to oil and gas drillers for a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The debate at the Capitol pits those seeking the jobs and money that would come with new silica sand mines against the people who would live near those operations.
Demand for the sand has grown and many companies are interested in mining the sand in southeastern Minnesota. Some Minnesota legislators want to slow down the process of approving new silica sand mines, and local residents are concerned the mining is a health hazard and will damage aquifers and other natural resources.
Industry officials said the proposed regulations would prevent the kind of job growth Wisconsin has seen from silica sand mining. Jason George is with a union representing heavy equipment operators in Minnesota. He told lawmakers that the busy silica sand mining operations in Wisconsin are expected to create more than 2,500 jobs.
"How many jobs in Wisconsin are going to be created before we let our people here compete? I just don't believe this is the best way to go forward in the interest of job creation," George said.
DFL Sen. Matt Schmit from Red Wing, where the debate over silica sand mining has been contentious, wants to make sure Minnesota mines its sand responsibly.
"If there's a long-term demand for this sand, as industry has told us there is, there will be plenty of opportunities for jobs in the future," Schmit said.
“I know there will be permits created for this industry eventually. It's just a matter (of) do we do it now before the harm is done or are we going to do it later, after the harm is done?”Bobby King, Land Stewardship Project
Schmit sponsors a bill that calls for a one-year moratorium on new mining. That would give the state enough time to complete an in-depth environmental review of the industry, he said.
The moratorium was passed 8-4 along party lines in the Senate Energy and Environment Committee on Tuesday. The measure also includes a production tax to pay for things like damaged roads, requires the state to prepare a generic Environmental Impact Statement and creates a board in southeastern Minnesota that would address concerns about silica sand mining.
Industry officials say state agencies are already studying the issue. Peder Larson, who lobbies for silica sand mine operators, said mining companies support state standards.
"We believe a lot of those state standards exist. We can't start construction without an air permit from the (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)," Larson said. We support stringent environmental review. We do it. Our projects are subject to it. We support it."
Bobby King, policy program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project which supports the moratorium, compared sand mining to large feedlots in arguing for state regulation. He said the standards came too late in that case.
"Communities suffered for years before we were able to get enough people back to the Legislature to create a strong MPCA permit," King said. "I know there will be permits created for this industry eventually. It's just a matter (of) do we do it now before the harm is done or are we going to do it later, after the harm is done?"
The bill also places a tax on silica sand production. Local government officials and residents in southeastern Minnesota are concerned about exposure to silica dust, possible water pollution and truck traffic that could damage roads. Supporters say a tax could help pay for repairs.
Marie Koveski of Winona says she is concerned about diesel exhaust from the trucks hauling the sand, and she presented lawmakers with some calculations.
"Just one barge operation in the city has been permitted for 48 barges a month. It takes 60 truck loads to fill one barge, so if you do the frac sand truck math, it's 5,760 truck trips a month. Divide by 30 you have 192 truck trips a day."
Republican state Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont said she considers silica sand mining part of agriculture -- an economic force in the state. She argued the industry faces already enough state environmental standards.
"This is agriculture. People live on agricultural land," Rosen said. "They have to expect the smells and the dust and the inconveniences and their roads being beat up, because that is what happens."
The audience became quiet at the tap of the gavel, but applauded after the bill was approved. The bill has a long journey ahead, including several committee stops and winning over members of the House. A sand mining regulation bill in that body does not contain a moratorium or a production tax.