Frack sand boom vexing Minnesota and Wisconsin

"Gravel Pit," 1934, by Elof Wedin (via Smithsonian American Art Museum).

We’ve noted in the past that the Upper Midwest is a prime source for silica sand, a key ingredient in natural gas fracking operations. The region’s sand is prized by the industry for its ability to flow smoothly yet maintain its structure to break apart rocks.

But just as local and state governments across the U.S. are scrambling to keep up with the fracking boom, Minnesota and Wisconsin are having to deal with a proliferation of sand mining operations.

Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported the state has at least 16 active silica mining and processing facilities, with an additional 25 proposed (there’s a detailed list on their website). The operations have spawned complaints from nearby residents about dust pollution and other impacts, but so far state regulators have not recommended further oversight.

That may change, according to the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, as state Sen. Kathleen Vinhout pushes for more state oversight of the industry. Vinhout says the state’s nonmetallic mining laws are “woefully inadequate” and were intended only for small gravel and sand operations, not the new silica operations which can span 100 acres or more.

“The development of mines has happened so quickly that the state hasn’t been able to keep up with its oversight,” Vinehout told the Leader-Telegram.

Meanwhile, in southeast Minnesota, Wabasha County has imposed a moratorium on new mining operations so local officials can assess impact on roads and area residents. A similar ban is under consideration in neighboring Goodhue County (yes, that Goodhue County), amid community opposition to a proposed 155 acre mine near the city of Red Wing.

With prices – and demand – for frack sand soaring, these tensions are only likely to increase.

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