Ethics complaints filed in Houston County mining dispute

One week after Houston County commissioners backed away from a ban on silica sand mining, three residents have filed separate ethics complaints against a county zoning official.

Among their allegations are that County Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan misrepresented the facts in the permitting process of a mine in the county. The residents also complain that Scanlan encouraged Planning Commission officials and the county board to approve a mining permit while an environmental review was pending.

The complaints also allege Scanlan has a conflict of interest because he owns a non-conforming mine on his property.

Scanlan declined to comment on the complaints.

Minneapolis-based law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen investigated Scanlan last year following similar citizen complaints. The firm found Scanlan "did not fully comply with his duties" as a county employee. He received a three-day suspension without pay and underwent an eight-hour Code of Ethics training, according to county documents.

"He took the time off, he's done the training, and I feel he does a very good job," said County Commissioner Judy Storlie. "He had one of the most difficult jobs because he's the person who tells people, 'No, they can't do this,' or if someone doesn't like what someone's doing but it's according to our zoning, he has to go by that and that's what he does."

Storlie said she doesn't give the new complaints against Scanlan a lot of merit. She said the county spent approximately $35,000 on last year's investigation, and she says anti-frac sand groups filed this latest round of complaints because they're upset the county failed to pass an all-out ban on silica sand mining.

In early March, the county board backed away from a prohibition on silica sand mining, after what appeared to be full support for a ban from the commission. The ordinance would have made Houston County the first in Minnesota to ban the practice, but the measure ultimately did not get the votes it needed to pass.

"There are people who just won't stop unless there is a ban," she said. "How much more are they going to keep going for? There were three of us commissioners that worked really hard to get mining regulated in our county ... and because it wasn't a ban for what this group of people thought it should be, then they're not happy. And I'm not happy because we couldn't regulate it."

Theressa Arrick-Kruger, the county's personnel director, says her office will review the new ethics complaints next week and determine whether to investigate them internally or hire an outside law firm to do so.

One of the complaints was filed by Yukatan township resident Bryan Van Gorp, who says he wants Scanlan removed from his position.

"Because these are ethics complaints that have to be investigated," Van Gorp said, "they'll finally have to deal with the things we bring forward and through that we'll finally get some enforcement of the ordinances and statues that apply to mining in Houston County."

Van Gorp says his decision to file an ethics complaint against Scanlan was not a result of the county's vote against an all-out ban on sand mining. He says he and the other two Houston County residents who filed the complaints had intended to do so for a while.

Silica sand is used in a natural gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. When the sand is forced into underground rock formations it breaks up the stone, releasing large amounts of natural gas. The hard Minnesota sand is perfect for fracking, because it can withstand the intense pressure needed to break rock.

There are currently no silica sand mines in Houston County but county officials say it is home to nine active mines used either for construction or agricultural purposes.

Fillmore, Winona and Wabasha Counties have all passed rules restricting silica sand mining in recent years.

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