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Frac sand firm agrees to voluntary environmental reviews for proposed SE Minn. mines

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A frac sand mining company proposing two mines in Winona County has agreed to conduct an in-depth environmental review of the projects voluntarily, officials said Thursday.  

The decision by Minnesota Sands comes two weeks after the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency called for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposals. 

The more detailed review isn't required by state law, so it had been up to Winona County officials to decide whether to require one. A hearing on that question had been scheduled for tonight, but county officials cancelled the meeting after being notified of Minnesota Sands' decision.

"More details on the scope of the EIS and procedure to follow will be released in the upcoming days," county officials said in a news release.

Silica sand mining is getting more scrutiny from state officials who are concerned about health impacts from silica dust and the possibility of mining pollutants seeping into groundwater and drinking water aquifers. Demand for silica sand is high because it is essential to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," that produces oil and gas. 

A joint House and Senate hearing on silica sand mining was held at the Capitol this week, and lawmakers will consider legislation placing tighter restrictions on the industry — including a possible moratorium on mining activity — next week. 

Mt. Frac
A pile of silica sand dubbed "Mt. Frac" in Winona, Minn. A frac sand mining company proposing two mines in Winona County has agreed to conduct an in-depth environmental review of the projects voluntarily, officials said Thursday.
MPR File Photo/Elizabeth Baier

"We are happy that the frac sand company has seen the light," said Jim Gurley, a founding member of Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Mining. "It's extremely important to Winona County that all possible consequences and cumulative effects from these mines is studied thoroughly."

The proposed mines would be located south of St. Charles in Saratoga Township.

Winona County had prepared an Environmental Assessment Worksheet on the proposals, but Gurley said the study wasn't good enough. The state agencies agreed, saying it didn't provide enough information on possible risks.