The Superior Sands mine in Bloomer, Wisconsin, in 2011. Silica mines in Wisconsin and Minnesota are rapidly expanding to supply the booming fracking industry. (Photo © Mary Kenosian, used with permission)

Should state help Minnesota counties study frac sand mining?

A new industry that could bring hundreds of millions worth of investments is on Minnesota’s doorstep, waiting to be invited in.

The frac sand industry is already booming across the border in Wisconsin, where mining operations are expanding to meet the demand for fine silica used in hydraulic fracturing. The scale of that development, often in scenic areas, has also drawn considerable public opposition.

City, county and township officials, too, have unanswered questions about the impact of frac sand mining on the environment, public health, and roads and bridges. Several southeastern Minnesota cities and counties (as well as in Wisconsin) have established moratoriums to give officials some time to try to decide how best to regulate the new industry.

A state senator and a group of citizen petitioners are now calling on Minnesota officials to play a bigger role in helping answer these questions.

“These are going to be big operations. They’re going to be around for a long time. We need to make sure that we have all the bases covered when we move forward with it,” said state Sen. John Howe, a Republican from Red Wing.

Specifically, he and the petitioners are asking the state’s Environmental Quality Board to order something called a generic environmental impact statement for frac sand mining in Minnesota.

The board, which is made up of state commissioners and citizens appointed by the governor, will hear public testimony on Wednesday about whether to order the study. They received a petition on the request last week.

Generic environmental impact statements are a rare and expensive undertaking meant to address larger scientific or cumulative impacts that can’t be covered in environmental reviews for individual projects.

The state has only ever completed two of them, one in 1994 on timber harvesting and another on animal agriculture in 2002. Each cost in the ballpark of $1 million.

Howe doesn’t think local governments necessarily have the resources to explore all of the issues around frac sand mining as carefully as they should be vetted.

“If we don’t make sure that we have policies in place and address issues, [mining companies] are going to come in, extract the resources, then you’re not going to have funds left over to repair the roads. You’re not going to funds left over for reclamation,” he said.

Howe said he supports local control, and notes that he voted against a bill last year that would have limited local governments’ ability to set moratoriums on wind farms or other developments. The state-level study wouldn’t prevent cities, counties or townships from making decisions, nor would it exempt companies from preparing project-specific impact statements. The results would supplement the information available to local officials.

“If a county or township feels they have enough information to go forward, that’s fine. They can go forward with it,” Howe said, while cautioning that there is “a lot of information out there” that local officials may not be privy to.

While the Environmental Quality Board has authority to order the studies, it’s up to the legislature to fund them. As of now, Howe doesn’t think there’s support to take up the issue in the upcoming special session, which will focus on flood relief.

Bob Patton, executive director of the Environmental Quality Board, said there may be other steps state agencies could take short of a formal impact study to help local government.

“A GEIS is a big step, and it also takes some time to complete,” Patton said.

No decision is expected at Wednesday’s meeting, which is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

7 thoughts on “Should state help Minnesota counties study frac sand mining?

  1. Why the distinction for “frac sand” versus regular sand or gravel mining? Don’t current rules and regs for extracting sand and gravel cover “frac” sand? Go fix some of the real problems in the state……..

  2. That’s a good question, John.

    What’s changed is not necessarily the nature of the mining, but the scale. If someone wanted to set up a lemonade stand in your neighborhood, you probably wouldn’t argue. But if they wanted to raze half a block of houses to build a factory to produce thousands of gallons of lemonade a day, then that’s an entirely different proposition. Will the community be able to accommodate the increased traffic? Power demand? Pollution? Who should pay for the damage? What mechanism do we use to measure and assess for it? These are the types of questions municipal and county governments are facing, many of them for the first time.

    Which is why the distinction “frac sand” (as opposed to just “sand”) is germane. The market for this sand was once fairly small. Now it is massive, driven by some of the most powerful companies in the U.S. It’s a simple way to communicate the larger scope of the issue.

  3. I still think existing zoning/codes/rules/weight limits etc should cover this “new” mining. If these fail to protect the community – adjust them. Carving out special rules for is silly.

  4. Better to fund studies that explore the rash of earthquakes in the Southwest before we destroy ourselves with this foolish and destructive approach to energy consumption.

  5. Frac sand needs washing; a small wash plant uses 500,000 gallons of water a day; most are bigger and use several million. Neighboring well owners are complaining because the sand spreads through the groundwater, exhausting their well pumps. The repair figures for that are $30,000 per well. Mines not beside rail must truck the sand. The weight of the trucks breaks up the roads; County B in Chippewa Falls became undrivable, even for the trucks.
    300 truck trips from mine to wash and/or load facility a day fills the air with diesel fumes, especially bad when facilities are close by schools. Neighbors have to live with blasting.
    I’m from Wisconsin, I could tell you more; but I have to go to work in the morning and the frac sand trains blow their whistles all night long. 3 AM and every 15 to 20 minutes thereafter is a public nuisance. There are many health concerns. Halliburton sells frac sand; this is their MSDS sheet, describing prudent safety measures.

  6. John: Another distinction between “frac sand” and regular sand/gravel mining is the size of the particles. The silica that’s mined for use in hydraulic fracturing is much finer than the stuff that’s found on beaches or playgrounds. OSHA has classified it as a workplace hazard because it can be easily inhaled and can cause cancer and scarring in the lungs. There isn’t a whole lot known about the health risk of broader exposure outside the workplace (such as dust from passing trucks or rail cars.) I know the MPCA was trying to pull together the best available information on the health risks, something that a county or township might not necessarily have the time or money to do.