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Many proposed frac sand mines would fail 'trout stream' test

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Sen. Matt Schmit
Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, holds a cut-out illustration of a trout as he speaks with opponents of frac sand mining. About 50 people, mostly from southeastern Minnesota, visited Schmit and other Senate leaders Tuesday, May 7, 2013, to push for a requirement that silica sand mines be located at least a mile from trout streams and related water bodies.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Legislation that would prohibit frac sand mining within a mile of a trout stream or spring in southeastern Minnesota would prevent at least 10 proposed frac sand mines in the region from being developed, according to a new analysis.

MPR News has identified and mapped more than 20 proposed frac sand mines, most of which are in a designated area of southeastern Minnesota that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has identified as vulnerable to the impacts of mining. In comparing those maps to maps provided by the DNR showing designated trout streams and karst springs, at least 10 sites overlap with the proposed buffers.

The Minnesota Senate on Friday is expected to consider the trout stream and springs buffer rule, sponsored by Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, as an amendment to the game and fish bill. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton supports the rule, and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has been testifying in Senate hearings to push for the buffer.

The rule affects proposed mines in the "Paleozoic Plateau Ecological Section" of the state, which includes Dakota, Goodhue, Houston, Fillmore, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona counties.

The sand mining industry has called the rule arbitrary, and has been lobbying against the measure. The buffer is backed by research done by the University of Minnesota, the DNR has said. The measure failed to make it into the final version of the Senate game and fish bill, but Schmit vowed to keep fighting for it.

The company that would most be affected by the buffer has been absent from Capitol hearings on frac sand mining this session. Minnesota Sands hopes to develop a dozen or so silica sand mines in Winona, Houston and Fillmore counties, but a company spokesman said officials have not analyzed the proposal being debated at the Capitol. The MPR News analysis found that at least five of the company's proposed mines are too close to streams or springs as defined in the legislation.

Minnesota Sands spokesman Mitch Bublitz said frac sand mining opponents were using trout as the latest excuse to stop new mines, now that a statewide moratorium is no longer a possibility. "Now they're trying to pretend they're protecting the fish to achieve the same goal," he said. 

Bublitz said the possibility of sand and runoff from a mine reaching a trout stream a mile away was remote, and that highway ditches in the area are already causing silica sand to run off into trout streams.

But proponents of the legislation have said mines can disrupt groundwater, leading to warming of trout streams.

Trout angling is a big industry in the region, John Lenczewski, a member of Trout Unlimited, told a Senate committee last week.

"Without the cold water from the springs, the trout fisheries disappear, the investment is wasted, and thousands of jobs that are dependent on this industry are lost," Lenczewski said.