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Goodhue County officials vote to ban silica sand mining for a year

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Goodhue sand pit hearing
Goodhue County residents pack a public hearing Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011. Commissioners there voted unanimously to wait and study a new kind of sand mining in the southeastern Minnesota county for one year. The moratorium will give county officials time to create an advisory board that will study the mining's potential health, environmental and financial impacts.
MPR Photo/ Elizabeth Baier

Goodhue County commissioners unanimously approved a proposal Tuesday night that will temporarily block a controversial kind of sand mining in the southeastern Minnesota county.

About 200 people filled a public hearing room in Red Wing for a meeting that lasted nearly three hours and included public comments from 20 people in support of the moratorium. No one spoke in opposition.

Commissioner Jim Bryant said the moratorium will give county officials time to assemble an advisory board to study the potential health, environmental and financial impacts of sand mining around the county.

"Is this really a good fit for us here?" Bryant said. "Maybe for some. Maybe in some areas but maybe not in other areas."

Goodhue County is particularly strategic for its deposits of "frac" sand, round grains of sand that are used in fracture mining. It is highly sought after for its size and strength. Frac sand has perfectly round grains that look like brown sugar crystals. 

It's ideal for the oil and natural gas exploration industry, which uses it to extract fuel from underground rock in a process called hydraulic fracturing, which forces the sand in a liquid medium into the cracks of a rock formation, expanding and weakening the natural fractures in the rock.

Sand in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois is considered some of the best frac sand in North America because it is chemically inert and can withstand the intense pressure needed to break apart rock. Already, there are a handful of frac sand mining operations in the region.

Bryant wants an open-minded discussion to consider the possibility of new sand mining operations in the county.

"A moratorium will allow us to do those things, present some things, strengthen our ordinance, if necessary," he said.

For months, Goodhue County residents have debated the issue after Windsor Permian, a division of Oklahoma-based Windsor Energy, bought 155 acres near Red Wing for $2.6 million. The company indicated it would use the land as a "sand pit" but did not submit any mining applications before commissioners passed the moratorium.  

Officials with Windsor Permian did not return calls from MPR for comment. 

For Goodhue residents like Keith Fossen, the moratorium is a victory. Fossen lives near the property purchased by Windsor Permian and said he wants county commissioners to take their time to study the potential impacts of not only local sand pit mining, including water pollution and damages to bluffs and roads. Fossen also wants more information on the impact of fracture mining.

"The work has just begun," Fossen said. "Are we going to permit that kind of industrial mining in our county? If the answer is no, then how do we do that correctly? If the answer is yes, then how do we control it? How do we not let it impact the quality of our lives?"