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By Bill Cunningham, USGS, public domain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Silica sand sides air their opinions before Environmental Quality Board

ST. PAUL – For nearly two years, the state has worked to craft new rules on mining silica sand used in fracking rocks to release oil and gas in other states or countries.

The issue remains divisive. At a hearing before the Environmental Quality Board Wednesday, opponents and proponents from both sides repeated what they have been saying for a few years.

Those who oppose it fear it will ruin the rural character of the southeast, where much of the sand is located, and will harm land, water, air and trout.

Mining interests say they have been operating sand and gravel mines, even some used for fracking sand, for decades or more in several counties, without environmental damage. They think more rules are overkill.

A state rule directing what size operations will need environmental review expires June 30; on July 1, the size of those requiring reviews will be doubled.

But even that is not solid, said Will Seuffert, executive director of the Environmental Quality Board, one of three state agencies (the other two are the Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources) charged with creating new rules for silica mining. He said even after July 1, local units of government can still ask for review of smaller projects if they believe they have a chance to do harm to the air, land, water, people and infrastructure.

“They are not getting a free pass,” he said.

Many disputes remain

After the Wednesday hearing, he acknowledged that the two sides are still far apart on many things, even among those working on the citizens commission. “There were a number of issues that I think were worked on collaboratively through the panel process but there are still differences of opinion and priorities,” he said.

“The legislation directs state agencies to provide local units of government with technical assistance on regulation and permitting,” according to the EQB web site. “In addition, the legislation sets new thresholds for environmental review of silica-sand-related operations and requires development of a number of new regulations.”

Silica sand mining, transportation and processing shot into the consciousness of many in the southeastern part of the state because it’s sitting on a huge pile of sand that’s the right hardness and shape for fracking. Wisconsin, which also has huge amounts, got into it first and many of the mines are very large. Minnesotans looked at Wisconsin and said they don’t any of that in this state.

Some mines and a large processing plant were proposed to be opened or built in the southeast but most ran into local opposition and none of the new ones are in operation. There are existing mines, processing and transportation operations in Winona and some other areas.

When silica rose up to be a major issue, it went to the Minnesota Legislature, which directed more research, more rules on the state level and tools that local governments can use if they want to pass stricter rules.

Seuffert said he expects the EQB will have its draft rules ready for review in summer; it will take about nine months to go through the review process before the rules are final, he said.

In related news, Frac sand industry feels the effects of low oil prices, less drilling

Provide information

In testimony Wednesday, Erik Dahl of the EQB said that the new rules aren’t meant to make or break a project but more to give local units of government more information on which to base their permitting decisions.

Those opposed to the silica mining said that help is needed. One of their main themes, outside of the dangers of the mining, moving and processing, was that many counties don’t have staff or expertise to do the the review.

Lynn Schoen, a member of the Wabasha City Council and a member of the state panel looking at silica, said it’s hard for local government to get good information. People on councils and commissions change, so it’s hard to get consistency, she said.

Kelly Stanage of Houston County, who is on the citizens panel, said she found out quickly that it’s also a political process and that state agencies “deal much much more with industry representatives” and use their science as gospel.

The permitting should be local, but environmental review should be by the state, she said.

But Peder Larson, an attorney representing the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, said mines do want to be, and have been, good environmental stewards. “We are in favor of environmental review that is needed,” he said.

Too many rules, however, might stop development, he said. If the state requires environmental assessment worksheets, or the much large environmental impact statements, it might be too much, he said. “EISs kill projects,” he said.

Aaron Scott, a manager for FairmountSantrol with mines in Minnesota and Wisconsin, said “we are proud of our strong environmental stewardship.” But he also said the state seems to be singling out a process, or use of a product, and that might be overreach. And don’t forget, a lot of other industries, such as glass, foundries, recreation and geothermal also need that sand, he said.

The rules seem to “remove significant flexibility” from the industry and is based more on fear than reality, he said.

This article was written by John Weiss from Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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