Minnesota's frac sand mining rules already outweigh Wisconsin's

Sand mining
In Maiden Rock, Wis., a miner drills holes in layers of rock where explosives will be placed and detonated to extract silica sand from the mine. Frac sand mining industry experts say Minnesota's environmental regulations are more stringent than Wisconsin's.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Doug Losee can sum up the differences between Minnesota's and Wisconsin's frac sand mining regulations by describing how much room the two states' environmental studies take up in his office.

"The Minnesota files really take up a bookcase. And for the most part, Wisconsin I can fit in a filing cabinet," said Losee, who oversees environmental regulations for Mankato-based Unimin Corp.'s sand mines in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Losee and other mining experts say that, in general, Minnesota's rules are already more stringent than Wisconsin's, and they could become even stricter under proposals being debated by the state Legislature. Sand mining, which serves the fast-growing oil and gas industry by providing material crucial for the hydraulic fracturing of deep wells elsewhere in the country, has become robust in Wisconsin and has been picking up in southeastern Minnesota.

The thick, three-ring binders that occupy Losee's office bookcase are filled with scoping documents, data about groundwater and hundreds of pages of public comments, all part of the environmental impact statement (EIS) required for mines of a certain size in Minnesota.

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"There's quite a bit of a back and forth process there, and some of these studies need to be done over multiple seasons," Losee said. "It's time consuming."

The in-depth environmental study usually isn't required in Wisconsin. That difference is one way mining experts say the two states have taken different regulatory approaches to the growing silica sand industry.

Unimin's latest EIS process for an existing facility in Kasota, Minn., took more than three years to complete and cost about $4 million. In Wisconsin, it took Unimin less than a year to apply for and receive all the permits it needed to start construction on a new facility, although he said the company still did the environmental studies.

Unimin mines
The Unimin Corporation mines large amounts of sand used in 'fracking' operations from pits like this near the Minnesota River close to St. Peter, Minn.
MPR File Photo/Mark Steil

"We did that on our own," he said. "We would want to know that we weren't going to have the type of impacts that were going to cause our neighbors concern or the state concern."

Unimin is one of several sand mining companies telling state lawmakers that Minnesota's current regulations are sufficient and will prevent a Wisconsin-style sand mining rush. Nearly a fifth of Wisconsin's sand mining companies have been responsible for a variety of violations, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

"There are some really, really good operators out there. There are some that aren't quite so good. They're in a hurry to get up and operating," said Tom Woletz, who oversees frac sand mining for the Wisconsin DNR. Woletz said problems have ranged from failing to control dust to failing to protect ground and surface water.

"We've had numerous blow-outs or failures of stormwater structures, and in some cases process water dikes where they've burst open," he said.


Minnesota officials want the state to be better equipped to prevent those problems as the industry grows. Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said he wants Minnesota to evaluate the cumulative impact of the industry.

"There was just never the opportunity for local leaders to take into account what's the regional significance of all of that activity," Schmit said. "One mine in proximity to another mine, in proximity to a third mine, what's that cumulative effect? And the activity is the mining, it's the processing, it's the transportation of the sand. It's also the impacts on landowners."

Schmit is sponsoring a bill that would give the state more authority to oversee sand mining and allow state leaders to study whether stricter rules are needed to protect the environment and human health.

Sand mining industry leaders say protecting the environment is important. As the industry continues to grow in both states, they say geology will determine where the growth is — not how long it takes to get a permit to mine it.

"So as long as the environmental regulations are based on science and fact, it's a level playing field," said Rich Budinger, regional manager of Wisconsin Industrial Sand Company and president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association. "There may be an added step in paperwork. Maybe a little more time for the permit to be reviewed, or a public hearing, but otherwise it's all based on the same goals, and that's protecting the environment."

But industry representatives say the playing field will favor Wisconsin even more if Minnesota's Legislature moves ahead with two other forms of proposed regulation — a temporary statewide ban on mining and a proposed production tax that they say could make mining silica sand in Minnesota too expensive.

"Minnesota has our highest quality sand in the company, but quality only goes so far," Losee said. Unimin's tax bill would be 25 to 30 times higher under a House proposal than the current aggregate tax it pays, he said.

"If the price becomes quite a bit different, the importance of the quality is diminished," he said. "While we're committed to keeping these operations here for the long term, if the taxes were put into place, then we could envision those tons of sand being purchased in other states."