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DFL lawmaker: Compromise reached on frac sand regulations

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Sen. Matt Schmit
DFL state Sen. Matt Schmit, seen here in February 2013 at the State Capitol, said Tuesday that DFL legislative leaders have reached a compromise on silica sand mining legislation.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The lawmaker who has pushed this year for tougher state regulation of the frac sand mining industry said DFL legislative leaders have reached a compromise on the legislation. 

Lawmakers agreed Tuesday to create a new Department of Natural Resources permit for companies hoping to mine silica sand in certain sensitive areas in southeastern Minnesota, said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing. Schmit said the regulations will be part of the spending bill that covers natural resources, the environment and agriculture. 

Schmit and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr had been pushing to prohibit sand mining within one mile of a trout stream or spring in the "Paleozoic Plateau Ecological Section" of the state, which includes Dakota, Goodhue, Houston, Fillmore, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona counties. The compromise expected to gain conference committee approval would instead require a hydrological study and DNR permit for any mine within a mile of a trout stream but not springs, Schmit said. 

"What this gives us is stricter scrutiny in the most sensitive regions of southeastern Minnesota," Schmit said. "If that study proves that mining will have no or limited impact on our waters, then we can move forward with the DNR permit, so I think this is a good compromise. I do think it gives notice that the areas around our trout streams are going to be watched very closely and creates an incentive for mining to take place elsewhere."

Schmit and DNR officials have pointed to geological maps showing plenty of silica sand deposits located more than a mile from trout streams. An MPR News analysis of proposed mining sites in southeastern Minnesota found that at least 10 of them were located within a mile of a trout stream or spring. 

HELP FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

Besides the new permit requirement for some mines, Schmit said the bill also includes language setting up a technical advisory team that would create model ordinances for local governments overseeing mining proposals. The legislation also would give the DNR, Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency rulemaking authority for permits related to sand mining and would allow local governments to extend local moratoria on sand mining by up to two years. Schmit said he expects all of those provisions to make it into the bill Gov. Mark Dayton signs.

"We've gotten a lot accomplished this session. It's not exactly what we proposed, but as I've maintained from day one, I'm not married to any particular provision as long as in the end we get it right," he said. "We fought as hard as we could for what we thought was right, and I think the package we're leaving with is a pretty strong one." 

A proposal to protect drinking water sources and require sand piles to be covered is also part of the overall frac sand regulation package, said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul.

The Land Stewardship Project and many southeastern Minnesota groups had hoped state lawmakers would adopt a one-year statewide moratorium on frac sand mining while the impacts were studied more thoroughly. That proposal stumbled, especially after Dayton said he opposed a moratorium. 

Bobby King, a community organizer with the Land Stewardship Project, said the compromise language is disappointing. He said residents wanted a comprehensive approach that would slow down new mining until the state had strong regulations.  

"It doesn't seem like that's what we're going to get; we're going to get some things that, while helpful, don't comprehensively address the problems," King said. "And I think citizens feel like the short term profits for the frac sand industry ultimately won out over the best interests of their communities." 

Dayton was a strong advocate of the stream buffer requirement, but after meetings with industry and labor representatives, he seems to have stepped back from that support.  The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

INDUSTRY PLEASED WITH COMPROMISE

The Minnesota Industrial Sand Council is pleased with the compromise, said Dennis Egan, the group's executive director. He said the water flow studies will show which mines should not be built, and he said the industry has agreed to pay for the studies on mines close to trout streams.

"But let's not blanketly put down legislation and criteria that automatically from the outset takes it beyond the realm of possibility," he said. 

A House proposal that would place a tax on silica sand production also appears to be losing steam. Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, chairs the Senate Tax Committee and said the tax won't be part of the overall tax bill. Skoe said that as it's currently written, the tax could drive business out of the state and add wear and tear to roads at the same time. 

"If you do a tax on production, and then do a tax on the processing, and have this compounding effect, you potentially could be encouraging mines that are just trucking out of our state and damaging the roads," he said. "You don't want to do that; people don't have an understanding of the way to do that yet, and I think we'll spend the summer trying to figure this out."

Skoe said the tax measure needs more study. It was introduced in the House but not in the Senate.  It's still possible it could be added to the game and fish bill, or the omnibus environment bill. Without a tax, some are asking how to pay for some provisions in frac sand mining bills, including the technical advisory team and state agencies' regulation of sand mining. The provisions are projected to cost more than $1.6 million in the coming year.