Farmland holds wealth in sand mining boom

Lois Steffenhagen
Lois Steffenhagen, who currently lives on her late brothers' 240-acre farm in Red Wing, Minn., made a decision along with her family to turn down an offer by a sand mining company to buy the property. Sand mining has become big business in recent years and mining companies are looking to expand their properties. Now some landowners are considering the option of selling or leasing their land to big companies who want to explore the area's natural resources and alternative forms of energy.
Special for MPR/Alex Kolyer

Hay Creek Township in southeastern Minnesota is known for two things: its namesake creek popular with anglers searching for freshwater trout and bluffs that offer uninterrupted views of the Mississippi River Valley.

Its rolling hills contain prized land where generations of farmers have produced corn and raised dairy cows.

"There's very good farming on the hills," said Lois Steffenhagen, whose brothers owned a 240-acre estate in Goodhue County near the Mississippi River.

Steffenhagen wants to sell the land that belonged to her two late brothers, Richard and Dale Steffenhagen, and she has found at least one potential buyer. But they're not interested in the topsoil.

The area's farmland is increasingly luring companies that want to explore the earth beneath the soil, and residents like Steffenhagen want to preserve the land and its current agricultural use.

The Upper Midwest is in the midst of a sand mining boom sparked by energy and mining companies that use silica sand to extract oil and natural gas from the ground. Geologists say there are virtually unlimited amounts of sand buried beneath the bluffs near the Mississippi River.

But the process doesn't come without controversy. Worried that the mining process might harm the environment, many rural Minnesota communities, like those near Red Wing, want to take their time before approving the sand-mining process.

Minnesota in Photos: Sand mining boom

Steffenhagen, whose family has lived in the valley since 1930, never imagined that it would one day be known for a precious commodity — one that she grew up playing with.

As a child, she would slide down the hills on her way to school and help her parents tend to the land.

"We've known there was sand, but we didn't know that it would be that valuable," she said. "So when I got a call in June about putting a sand-washing plant here, then we got concerned ourselves."

Steffenhagen and her remaining siblings didn't want to see their land in the hands of someone who might turn around and sell it to a mining company, so they decided they weren't ready to sell.

COMMUNITIES ENACT MORATORIUMS

Since fall, officials in Goodhue, Winona and Wabasha counties have implemented temporary moratoriums on silica sand mining to study the issue. Houston and Olmsted counties are also considering moratoriums.

Officials are trying to figure out how to regulate silica sand mining, a process that has swept parts of western Wisconsin in the last five years. There are several dozen active mining facilities in Wisconsin and dozens more proposed.

Mineral mining
A pillar showing layers of different minerals towers over a drilling machine in the mine. Silica sand has many applications, including being used in the process of extracting oil and natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Sand mining has become big business in recent years and mining companies are looking to expand their properties. Now some landowners are considering the option of selling or leasing their land to big companies who want to explore the area's natural resources and alternative forms of energy.
Special for MPR/Alex Kolyer

Citizens groups have formed on both sides of the river to oppose the projects. They worry mines will contaminate drinking water and lead to respiratory problems caused by inhaling silica sand dust.

Silica sand dust can cause respiratory problems, including cancer, but no federal air quality standards for silica sand currently exist. Minnesota is home to a handful of silica sand mining operations.

For landowners who want to sell, the moratoriums have been a roadblock, said Jeff Broberg, a land consultant in Rochester who represents several Winona County landowners who want to lease property to mining companies. Broberg, a geologist whose work has included environmental conservation, said the moratorium has postponed at least three new proposed projects in southeastern Minnesota.

"People say there's going to be thousands of mines," Broberg said. "Well, there's never going to be thousands of mines. There's never going to be hundreds of mines."

WHY SAND?

Sand mines have been a part of the landscape in Minnesota and Wisconsin for more than a century. The sand has been used mostly in local glass and construction industries. Despite the demand from energy companies, Broberg said, there are limitations to how much sand mining will actually happen in the region because existing transportation facilities can only handle so many loads.

Silica sand
Silica sand has many applications, including being used in the process of extracting oil and natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Sand mining has become big business in recent years and mining companies are looking to expand their properties. Now some landowners are considering the option of selling or leasing their land to big companies who want to explore the area's natural resources and alternative forms of energy.
Special for MPR/Alex Kolyer

"It's not as big an issue as people think," he said.

But silica sand mining can be big.

Across the river in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin Industrial Sand operates a 1,500-acre facility on land that that has been a mine site since 1929. One of only four underground silica sand mines in the country, it produces more than 600,000 tons of sand a year.

A subsidiary of Ohio-based Fairmount Minerals, the company owns mines in Maiden Rock, Bay City and Menominie, all in Wisconsin.

The mine is a complex series of tunnels, air vents and columns about 250 feet beneath the surface of the bluff. Miners use loaders to grab sand, wash it and haul it out of the mine. After workers load the sand onto railroad cars it heads south into northern Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas, where mining companies use it for "fracking" — a process that pumps sand and water deep into mines to extract natural gas.

Rich Budinger, regional manager for Wisconsin Industrial Sand, said his company is working with local communities to address trucking, noise and air-quality concerns. He acknowledges some surface mines will turn bluffs into flat farm fields, but said it's a small part of the overall landscape.

"It's not like we're mining all the state of Wisconsin," said Budinger, who noted that only a few areas have concentrations of several mines. "And just as long as the counties are working with the companies on reclamation, the mines themselves are what we consider short-term uses of the land."

Local governments in Minnesota and Wisconsin regulate mining operations. But the rules are a patchwork of ordinances and zoning laws that vary by township and county. Both states' natural resource agencies issue permits to regulate storm water, air quality and water usage.

Unlike small, local sand mines that have existed for a hundred years, newer mines can involve thousands of acres and many sites. They're tied to the oil and gas industry that is experiencing its own boom times.

Steven Taff, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, said silica sand mining highlights the debate people have engaged in for hundreds of years — how to regulate varying land uses. He said local officials in southeastern Minnesota are using the moratoriums to develop rules for mining.

"It's not much different in some cases than people proposing to expand a dairy operation which will have more cows and possibly more manure," Taft said. "Communities have created procedures to try to work through some of these issues."

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