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Limited frac sand mining approved in Goodhue County

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Public hearing
About 75 people filled a room at the Goodhue County Government Center in Red Wing for a public hearing on June 18, 2013.
MPR Photo/ Elizabeth Baier

After almost two years of debate, the Goodhue County Board of Commissioners approved two ordinances to regulate the frac sand mining industry.

The new rules in Goodhue County limit mineral extraction facility operation sites to 40 acres of exposed or uncovered ground at any one time; mining operations are limited to the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday; the county is given authority to require air quality monitoring; and mining must be 1,000 feet from any existing dwelling or platted residential subdivision.

The rules also allow the county to add additional conditions to mitigate noise, dust, hours of operation or blasting.

The rules don't take effect until later this summer when a moratorium on sand mining expires. If the moratorium is not extended, the county could begin seeing frac sand mining applications later this fall.

About 80 people filled a room in Red Wing for a public hearing that included comments from 25 people, including Red Wing resident Michelle Meyer.

Like most people at the meeting, Meyer asked county commissioners to extend an existing countywide moratorium on sand mining operations. 

"It's painfully obvious to me that the risks of frac sand mining outweigh any conceived benefits,"

"It's painfully obvious to me that the risks of frac sand mining outweigh any conceived benefits," Meyer said. "Nearly everyone here is pointing  those risks out to you, one by one, person by person, and we are not alarmists. We are not fear-mongerers. We are informed people."

Others at the meeting, such as Winona County resident Jane Cowgill, applauded the county for its work on the ordinances but asked officials to take more time to study the potential risks of frac sand mining.

"You have the opportunity of being the real, real leaders in how you do this," Cowgill said. "You've done a good job so far and you can really do better by extending the moratorium."

After hours of debate, commissioners were split 3-2 on the vote to approve the mining regulations.

Commissioner Jim Bryant, who voted against the new ordinances, said county officials should take as much time as they need to study the frac sand mining concerns that have come up since a mining committee recommended the changes to the county's regulations.

"This is a very important issue for the whole county. Doesn't mean we're here to say you can't do it. It just means we want to do it right," Bryant said.

Others on the commission, like Dan Rechtzigel, supported the amendments. He said the county cannot continue to delay regulating the industry.

"I don't know if we're going to find out every answer we need. It's like any controversial issue. There will always be questions," Rechtzigel said. "And that's the nature of a controversial issue."

Earlier this year, state lawmakers agreed to create a new Department of Natural Resources permit for companies hoping to mine silica sand in certain sensitive areas in southeastern Minnesota.

Goodhue County is particularly strategic for its deposits of "frac" sand; the round grains of sand that are used in fracture mining. It is highly sought after for its size and strength. The sand is ideal for the oil and natural gas exploration industry, which uses it to extract fuel from underground rock in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The process forces the sand in a liquid medium into the cracks of a rock formation, and expands and weakens the natural fractures in the rock.

In September 2011, Goodhue County commissioners unanimously approved a proposal to temporarily block the controversial kind of sand mining in the southeastern Minnesota county. In August 2012, commissioners extended the moratorium for another year.

After Tuesday's meeting, Hay Creek resident Keith Fossen and his wife, Amy Nelson, sat on a terrace in downtown Red Wing. The couple have led the Save the Bluffs effort to oppose sand mining in Goodhue County.

Fossen said he is disappointed, but not discouraged with the commission's vote.

"I think the work must go on. We have to somehow continue to keep people engaged. It's been two and a half years," Fossen said. "It's easy for some people to get disheartened but I'm not disheartened at all."

Goodhue County officials will regroup in late August to discuss the possibility of extending the moratorium another year. If that extension does not pass, the county could see its first frac sand mining permit applications as early as September.