Contentious frac sand mining hearings start at Capitol

Frac sand mining protester
A woman holds a large poster-size aerial photo of a silica sand mining operation in Wisconsin as opponents of sand mining expansion in Minnesota gathered for a news conference prior to a hearing before a joint House and Senate at the State Capitol Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

The dispute over frac sand mining shifted from cities and towns in southeastern Minnesota to the hallways of the State Capitol Tuesday.

Opponents of the new mining process packed a legislative hearing to urge Gov. Mark Dayton and state lawmakers to regulate the sand mining industry. But industry officials say such regulations will limit job growth and create unnecessary burdens on them.

For nearly two years, locally elected officials have grappled with the best way to handle permit applications for new frac sand mines in southeastern Minnesota. Some have approved the permits. Others have imposed moratoriums.

Now, many of those officials, and opponents of the industry, want the Legislature to take a stronger stand on the issue. David Williams, a Preble Township Supervisor, said the state needs to help local officials.

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"Recent experiences have shown that when local government decision makers cannot find answers to questions about public health, environment, transportation and economic needs, these decision makers freeze and make no efforts to find solutions to possible silica sand mining problems," Williams said. "That's why state agencies and state government needs to enter the picture."

Minnesota officials are expressing concern over the emerging frac sand industry after watching how the industry took root in western Wisconsin. The silica sand that is natural to western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota is ideal for hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The fracking process helps capture natural gas and oil in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

Michael Caron and Christina Morrison
Michael Caron, right, and Christina Morrison with Tiller Corp. testified against a statewide moratorium and regulations on frac sand mining at a state House hearing in St. Paul on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

But officials in Minnesota worry companies are rushing to mine the sand with little regard for the impact on air and water quality, water use and environmental damage. Vince Ready of Saratoga Township was one of several citizens worried about the impact.

"If the proposed mines start their enterprise here, our environment, atmosphere and resources are changed forever," Ready said. "What was a scenic, safe farming community will become a heavily industrial area."

Opponents of frac sand mining are urging the Legislature to impose a moratorium on new mines until statewide standards are in place to regulate the industry. They also want the industry to pay fees and taxes to cover the cost of road and bridge repair needed to handle increased truck traffic.

Officials representing the industry argue that state standards aren't needed.

"We don't believe that there's anything generic about any of the facilities or the processing," said Mike Caron, director of land use affairs for Maple Grove-based Tiller Corporation. "They're each unique and each of them should be studied on their own so that all of the local issues and concerns can be dealt with rather than on a more generic form."

Mining supporters also argue that the industry will also provide high-paying jobs. Jason George, a lobbyist with the Operating Engineers union, said frac sand mining jobs are some of the highest quality construction jobs in Minnesota.

Frac sand mining protester
A protester carries a sign denouncing frac sand mining in Red Wing, Minn., at the Minnesota Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, as lawmakers begin hearings on how best to regulating the booming mining business in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"These jobs pay about $25 to $30 an hour. That's not easy to find in today's economy," George said. "They come with health insurance for families. They come with pensions. The average number of hours worked in a pit is 1,800. That's more than people who work on roads and bridges or transit."

Lawmakers said little during Tuesday's hearing. DFL Sen. Matt Schmit of Red Wing said he's introducing a bill this week to address the issue. He said a statewide moratorium is on the table but declined to give more specifics.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he thinks some sort of over-arching approach is needed. He said he told industry leaders that he'll ensure policy makers have time to sort through the issues.

"If there's a rush ahead then I'm prepared to take whatever action I can to put a hold on that until the Legislature has a chance to go through its process," Dayton said.

Dayton has not outlined exactly what he might do. A hearing on the Senate bill is expected to be held next Tuesday.