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Frac sand mining fissures exposed at Legislature

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Sand mining
A miner drills holes in layers of rock where explosives will be placed and detonated to extract silica sand from the mine. 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

For the past two years, cities and towns in southeastern Minnesota have been grappling with how to regulate frac sand mining.

The sand's role in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has caused a rush to mine the silica sand for use in the booming oil and gas fields in North Dakota and other states. The tiny round sand pellets mined in Minnesota break up underground rock to release natural gas and oil deposits. 

The debate over the issue is also creating some fault lines at the Capitol.

"This industry is alive and well in western Wisconsin. It's going to move into southeastern Minnesota," said DFL Sen. Matt Schmit of Red Wing, who is one of several lawmakers looking to come up with a plan to create standards for frac sand mines.

Up until this point, most of the regulation has come from local communities. Those local leaders expect to see more permit applications, and differing opinions over how to regulate this industry are forcing lawmakers to consider broad standards.

"We've got to look at this not by project-by-project but in a cumulative manner,"  Schmit said. "What's the effect of all of these projects in 10 years?"

There is also disagreement over how to approach the issue. DFL Sen. John Marty of Roseville said there should be a statewide standard for frac sand mining. He is willing to consider a moratorium on any new mines until a survey determines the impact on air quality, water quality and use, and other environmental concerns. 

Sen. John Marty
In this photo taken Tuesday, May 8, 2012., Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is shown on the floor of the Senate in St. Paul, Minn. there should be a statewide standard for frac sand mining. Marty says that he is willing to consider a moratorium on any new mines until a survey determines the impact on air quality, water quality and use, and other environmental concerns.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"It might be really good for one or two families there, maybe a handful of a jobs. But the biggest thing is all of the other neighbors, all of the other farmers, all of the other small towns near there — they have to live with the damage," Marty said. "They're the ones to suffer the health consequences and the environmental consequences."

But others say a statewide moratorium is unnecessary. There are environmental concerns but Republican Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona said he thinks local governments can decide what is best for their communities.

"If the state gets involved we have to be very careful that we do not overreach, because once again our local officials are much closer to this issue than we are here in St. Paul," Miller said.

  Miller's biggest worry, he said, is the impact the industry will have on local roads and bridges. Increased heavy truck traffic could damage roads in many smaller communities, he said.

DFL Rep. Rick Hansen of South St. Paul shares that concern. Hansen said the new mines should pay a tax to help local governments upgrade roads and bridges and perform environmental reviews.

"There are public costs with road damage. There are public costs with infrastructure. There are public costs with the whole process of implementing new mines," Hansen said. "My goal is that as this industry develops and expands, it pays for the public costs that are associated with that industry."

Hansen said he would also like to see a statewide scientific and technical advisory group help local communities assess the impact when a new application is filed.

Two state agencies recently ordered Winona County to perform a larger environmental review of two mining applications in that county. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he wants the state to study the cumulative effect of frac sand mining but has not yet outlined any policy positions.