Committee to vote on frac sand regulation bill

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

A busload of concerned citizens from southeastern Minnesota will attend a hearing today on legislation that would regulate the silica sand mining industry.

The Senate Committee on Energy and the Environment is expected to vote on the bill, which would impose a production tax on the industry and require the state to conduct a generic Environmental Impact Statement on silica sand mining.

The vote comes a week after the same committee heard testimony on the impact of silica sand mining. The hearing was so popular that more than two dozen people didn't get a chance to testify because of time constraints, said Bobby King, state policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, a group that favors regulations for the industry.

"A lot of those folks are coming back, and now that there's a bill for people to comment on I know they want to come up and talk about what's going to work for them and what needs to be added, and I know that people are going to say a moratorium needs to be added for this bill to be complete," King said.

King said he expects the moratorium will be added to the bill as an amendment.

The demand for silica sand has skyrocketed since oil and gas drillers started using it for a process known as fracking. Minnesota has eight working silica sand mines, and several more have been proposed for southeastern Minnesota.

The concerns about how the sand mining will affect the environment, health and the state's roads and bridges needs further study, said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing.

"This is a good balance between leveraging state-level expertise and also empowering those local decision makers, who I really think are in a good position to make good decisions if they're given the resources and information to do so," said Schmit, who is sponsoring the bill.

The bill allows local governments to keep their own moratoriums on the industry in place for two more years, he said.

Industry officials have said state regulation is not needed. Officials with the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, a group that represents silica sand mining interests, said they were still analyzing the legislation. They plan to testify at the hearing today.

Minnesota Sands, a company proposing several mines in Winona, Fillmore and Houston counties, said a moratorium would put the state at a competitive disadvantage.

This silica sand mining has been going on for years," said company spokesman Mitchell Bublitz. "If Minnesota puts in place a statewide moratorium, all it's going to do is allow Wisconsin to sell all the more. Wisconsin is moving tons and tons of silica sand as we speak."

Bublitz said Minnesota Sands has already agreed to an Environmental Impact Statement for its proposals.

A bill introduced in the House on Monday would direct the state Environmental Quality Board to develop standards for silica sand mining.

MPR reporter Tom Scheck contributed to this report.