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Sand mining testimony fractured

A Minnesota Senate committee room is packed Tuesday as lawmakers listen to testimony for and against sand mining. People who filled another room watched on a television monitor. No vote was taken. Don Davis | Forum News Service

ST. PAUL – Sand mined in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin opens up cracks between rocks so oil and gas can be removed from the ground in places such as North Dakota.

But mining the silica sand also is splitting residents of the areas where it is mined, as legislators learned Tuesday when the two sides testified.

Sand mining companies said they are good citizens that help their communities, and local governments are best suited to make decisions about the practice, which just is getting a foothold in Minnesota.

“This type of mining has been working successfully in Minnesota for decades and decades,” mining geologist Kirsten Pauly told lawmakers.

Opponents, however, said state government needs to study the issue and should forbid new sand mines from opening until officials know the full impact.

“The state needs to get involved to protect our homes,” said Lynn Schoen of the Wabasha City Council.

The controversy centers on whether sand mining, processing and transportation is dangerous to people. There are indications that the fine sand can cause cancer in sand facility workers, but there are few studies about how sand affects those who live nearby.

“There is almost no information available for health hazards for casual or ambient exposure,” said Peggy Rehder of the Red Wing City Council.

Larry Sonnek of Red Wing expresses his opinion about allowing sand mines in his area. Don Davis | Forum News Service

Hydraulic fracturing uses a type of sand plentiful in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Along with water and chemicals, sand is injected into rock in western North Dakota and other oil and gas fields to keep rock fractures open so oil and gas may be released.

Sand has been mined in the area for years for glass and other products, but now is in greater demand as American oil and gas companies ramp up production.

“The best frac sand in the world is in the worst possible area,” Jody McIlrath of rural Red Wing said.

Much of the prime sand mining area is near the Mississippi River, although some mines also are proposed for south-central Minnesota.

Opponents complained about:

— A need for large quantities of water to wash the sand, with fears it could drain the aquifer.

— The possibility of polluting the aquifer and streams.

— Lack of information local government officials have.

— Large numbers of trucks hauling sand from mines to processing plants and then to railroads.

But mining company representatives said it was much ado about nothing.

Pauly said existing mines do a good job of controlling dust, so the new ones could do that, too. She said such control is “standard operating procedure.”

Representatives from Twin Cities-based Bryan Rock Products said the company has been quarrying gravel more than 70 years in Scott and Washington counties, with few problems. Bryan and another company now want to get into sand mining.

Union official Jason George said jobs in mines pay $25 to $30 an hour, and come with good health insurance and pension benefits.

Mining companies said local governments have done a good job of regulating them for years and they said there is no need for the state to get involved.

Tony Kwilas of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce supported the mines, saying there can be a “delicate balance” between jobs and protecting natural resources. Mining already is “one of the most heavily regulated industries in the state,” he added.

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, plans to introduce a bill as early as today on the issue. He refused to be specific and walked away when reporters asked him questions, but he said a sand mining moratorium would be part of the discussion.

“Slowing down the process” to give local governments time to act would be a good idea, he said. “We don’t want to see what happened in Wisconsin to happen in Minnesota.”

Sand mines are common in western Wisconsin, which has few mining regulations.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said he also supports delaying the process.

“The jobs are important, yes, but so is health,” said Marty, chairman of the Senate committee where Schmit’s bill will be heard next week.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.