Red Wing mayor lobbies for silica sand industry

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

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Some residents in Red Wing say their mayor, Dennis Egan, should not have accepted a job with a lobbying group for the silica sand industry.

Egan is now also the executive director of the newly created Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. It's a group of companies with interests in silica sand mining — a quickly growing industry that is also creating controversy in a number of cities and counties in southeastern Minnesota, including Red Wing.

Egan is a long-time lobbyist at the State Capitol. His clients include the Minnesota Private College Council, Ramsey County and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. But his new job with the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council has officials across the region questioning how the position might influence his role as a city leader.

Winona Mayor Mark Peterson said whether or not Egan's new job poses a true legal conflict, the perception of a conflict may be just as problematic.

"I think as elected officials, we need to be very careful about how we're perceived in being neutral," Peterson said. "I need to keep an open mind about issues and I think this probably creates a problem for him in appearing open-minded."

"I think as elected officials, we need to be very careful about how we're perceived in being neutral,"

Red Wing is not currently considering any silica sand mining permit requests.

Egan, who did not return calls for comment from MPRNews, told the Associated Press he would recuse himself if the city receives any formal silica sand proposals. He also said the Industrial Sand Council will seek to create best practices for the industry that's swept through southeastern Minnesota.

Some call the sand beneath the bluffs in this region 'yellow gold.' The tiny sand particles are strong, round and valued as they are perfect for extracting oil and natural gas from the ground in a process known as hydraulic fracturing.

Across the region, local government officials are working to regulate the mines, washing facilities and transportation hubs that come with this fast-growing industry. According to the DNR, as of October 2012 there were eight mines known to be actively mining silica sand in southeastern Minnesota. Many more permit requests for new facilities are likely. These include a proposal to build an industrial processing plant and loading facility just outside St. Charles in Winona County.

St. Charles Mayor Bill Spitzer said best practices for the sand mining industry should come from the state, not an industry-backed group. Until now, regulation of the industry has been left to city and county officials and Spitzer said the state needs to step in for guidance.

"Like it or not, people do trust what the government says. Sometimes they may not like the information that comes out of government studies, but truth be told, a lot of those studies are what we base a lot of our decisions on," Spitzer said. "I think that government is the most unbiased, at least in my opinion, to help us, guide us, through some of these decisions."

Meeting about sand fracking
In this file photo from April 21, 2011, Red Wing residents meet at the city library to discuss sand mining. Many are just learning about the process but are worried about what they have heard from people across the river in Wisconsin communities close to frac sand mines.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Both Spitzer and Winona Mayor Peterson said they don't know much about the new industry group and neither commented specifically about Egan's new role with the group.

But Spitzer said as an elected official, he takes any information he gets from any industry with caution.

"It doesn't alarm me to get the information from the business," Spitzer said."Yet I'm always skeptical when I hear any side because you have to take that balanced approach and ask why are they giving me that information or why are they telling me that."

Egan's new job worries some Red Wing-area residents who think he won't be able to balance his job as mayor with industry interests.

"I think the fact that he's going to be on the board and he will be identified as the mayor of Red Wing will certainly reflect that the Red Wing community is in favor of frack sand mining. And I don't think that's true," said Susan Nevitt, who lives in Hay Creek Township, just outside outside Red Wing. "I think it's deeply divided so I don't think he can be on that committee and not give the impression that Red Wing is in favor of it."

Nevitt said Egan's position creates the potential for conflict. She wants a neutral assessment on the health, environmental and traffic impact it may have on her land.

That may happen this legislative session. A Minnesota Senate committee has scheduled a hearing for bills on sand mining on Feb. 19.

MPR Reporter Stephanie Hemphill and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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