HAY CREEK, Minn. – Before a big energy corporation threatened to turn the bluff behind her house into a sand mine in early 2011, Amy Nelson’s idea of civic activism was to volunteer at the United Way.
A Ronald Reagan fan and former provost at Southeast Technical College in Red Wing, Nelson now stands on the front lines of an anti-frac sand movement that is spreading rapidly across southeastern Minnesota. She and her fellow “fractivists” plan to rally at the State Capitol Tuesday as the Legislature takes up a set of regulatory proposals in the effort to balance the economic benefits of the burgeoning industry against concerns about air, water and health.
“It’s wrong to let an industry start before limits and rules are set,” Nelson said in an interview. “You can’t allow them to come in, rape the land and then say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ ”
As the Legislature weighs a range of options — from a statewide moratorium to in-depth environmental reviews or even a tax on frac sand — the industry will also have a voice at the Capitol.
Mark Ellis, president of the National Industrial Sand Association, said a balanced look at the science around frac sand mining shows there is no basis for environmental restrictions.
Ellis didn’t comment on proposed legislation in Minnesota, but said Wisconsin found no reason to crack down on the industry after it was reviewed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Unlike many opponents of frac sand mining, Nelson philosophically supports expanded oil and gas drilling in the United States — but only where hydraulic fracturing is proven safe.
Today the organization where she volunteers, Save the Bluffs, is one of more than a dozen groups that have formed along the Mississippi River corridor. The region holds vast deposits of uniquely formed silica sand vital to the oil and gas “fracking” boom in North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania and other states. The special drilling technique is expected to make the United States the number one oil producer in the world by 2020.
Nelson, a breast cancer survivor who grew up in Minnesota farm country before certain ag chemicals were banned, worries that sand mining has taken off without appropriate study and regulations to protect people, animals and land from airborne sand particles and chemicals used to wash frac sand.
“We need more knowledge and regulation in place before we bless it and say it’s safe,” she said.
Nelson worked as a tool and die designer for seven years after graduating from Dunwoody Institute in the early 1980s. She still credits Reaganomics for launching her career, which has included work as a training instructor and educational roles at various technical schools. An expert in distance learning and online instruction, she obtained a Ph.D. in education through online courses at Capella University.
Like many of her fellow activists, Nelson had no previous experience in political activism or protesting. Now she volunteers up to 20 hours a week as a researcher, website manager and strategist at Save the Bluffs.
The organization scored a victory in the late summer of 2011 by winning a temporary frac sand moratorium in Goodhue County. Two representatives from the group were appointed to a special committee to strengthen the county’s nonmetallic mining ordinance, and the moratorium has since been extended to give the group time to complete its work.
Meanwhile, Nelson’s husband, Keith Fossen, joined the Hay Creek Township Board of Supervisors and helped write a local ordinance on sand mining. Another Save the Bluffs member is on a planning board in Florence Township, where a related frac sand facility is proposed.
“What we decided to do was go after it locally,” Nelson said. “You can’t rely on the county.”
Nelson’s work at Save the Bluffs has mostly been behind the scenes, but lately she’s emerged as the face of the organization. “The more you read, the angrier you get,” she said.
She attracted public attention last week at the Red Wing City Council meeting when she stepped to the microphone at a crowded hearing over Mayor Dennis Egan’s controversial decision to become executive director of a newly formed frac sand lobbyist group.
Nelson called the mayor’s dual role “corruption” of local politics. He’ll be able to feed the industry with the perspectives of a government insider, making it appear to the rest of the state that Red Wing has been “purchased” by the frac sand industry, she said.
Nelson admits that her fight started strictly as a not-in-my-back-yard concern.
In early 2011, two companies aligned with Gulfport Energy Corp., an Oklahoma oil and gas business, spent a startling $2.6 million for 155 acres of undeveloped, wooded bluff land adjacent to her neighborhood of country estates just south of Red Wing. In a scramble to learn why the land was so coveted, she uncovered a document that mentioned plans to mine 20 million tons of sand for fracking.
The shock quickly gave way to a local information campaign by Nelson and other neighbors. Hardly anyone in the surrounding valley had ever heard of frac sand, and no one was aware of the mining plan.
“Awareness-wise they’ve made a big difference around here,” said Pat O’Neill, owner of Hay Creek Campground and adjoining Dressen’s Saloon.
Nestled in a state recreation area loaded with rock outcroppings, horse-riding trails, trout fishing and snowmobile paths, Hay Creek attracts 500 to 600 visitors on weekends, O’Neill said. Frac sand mining would hurt his business, disrupt the lives of local residents and “deface a really beautiful area,” he said.
To spread the word, one of Nelson’s neighbors, a pilot, started flying sightseeing trips over frac sand mines in western Wisconsin, where close to 100 facilities have been permitted in the past four years. Anti-frac sand lawn signs went up along state Highway 58 in Hay Creek Township and fliers were handed out at local garage sales. Amy’s husband, Keith, spent a week in the couple’s garage painting a 20-by-30 foot banner that they plastered on the side of a nearby barn.
“Ban frac sand mining or enjoy silicosis, asthma, blowing dust, traffic, bad roads, a flat county, low property values, noise, lights, vibration, dry wells,” the banner said. “Call your commissioner before it is too late.”
More than 100 people crammed into a Red Wing library room to hear the group’s first official presentation by an activist from Wisconsin. Later, more than 200 people turned out for a similar gathering at the high school. Now, Nelson said, 30 volunteers form the core of Save the Bluffs, but another 300 people have signed up to receive the group’s e-mail notifications.
Citing business reasons, the owners of the Hay Creek property near Nelson’s home recently announced they are no longer interested in mining it. But Nelson isn’t quitting. She hopes for state involvement, but doesn’t want to relinquish the right for local units of government to establish their own controls over the industry.
“Yeah, I don’t want it in my own back yard, but I also don’t want it in my community and I don’t want it in anyone else’s community,” she said.