Houston County commissioners have reversed course on a frac-sand ban that seemed destined for approval, instead stalemating twice Tuesday morning during a packed public meeting so raucous that several people were ejected for disruptive behavior.
The board, which 10 days ago was poised to adopt Minnesota's first prohibition on industrial sand mining, was unable to agree on an outright ban, or on an ordinance that would regulate the industry. Passage of either would have required four votes on the five-member board. Instead, the commissioners first split 3-2 on the ban, then split 3-2 on an ordinance to limit the size and operation of the mines.
"It's very disappointing," said Commissioner Justin Zmyewski, who proposed the ban.
Houston County is one of several southern Minnesota jurisdictions struggling to manage conflicts that have arisen over the prospect of massive open pit mines to provide sand for "hydrofracking'' in the oil and gas industry. Opponents fear destruction of scenic bluffs along the Mississippi River, health problems from blowing silica sand dust and contamination of groundwater and trout streams. Mining supporters say they're trying to protect private property rights and the chance to cash in on the nation's now booming oil industry.
All of those issues played out in the Houston County debate.
"When you ban it, I don't feel it's right," said Commissioner Judy Storlie, who voted against the ban. "I feel you need to regulate it."
Zmyewski said the stalemate means commissioners have wasted three years of work and taxpayer money on developing ordinances, and are now "back to step one." He vowed to continue the fight to prevent frac-sand mining in the county.
The commissioners can still debate and pass rules for frac-sand mining. But for now, a 1973 county ordinance with few restrictions still stands — a development that commissioners on both sides of the debate deplored.
"It's pretty sad," said Storlie. "But I'm sure this is not a dead issue."
At the moment, the county has no pending projects or permits, because a frac-sand moratorium has been in place for the past three years while the state and the county developed rules.
The moratorium expires Thursday, after which developers can apply for permits to move forward. It's not clear at this point how the county will handle them.
"I'm sure the [county] will regulate them as best they can," Storlie said.
10 days of lobbying
A yes vote Tuesday would have made Houston County the state's first to prohibit large sand mines. The board had voted unanimously 10 days ago for a proposed rule to ban industrial sand mining, while still allowing sand and gravel production for agriculture and construction from operations that produced up to 60,000 cubic yards.
But furious politicking from interests on both sides stalled final resolution at Tuesday's meeting.
As they have in previous meetings, passions erupted during heated discussion among commissioners. But this time, about half a dozen people were ejected by sheriff's deputies for shouting at the commissioners and other inappropriate behavior.
The second ordinance that didn't pass Tuesday also limited the size of sand mines to operations that produce 60,000 cubic yards annually, but had no restrictions on how the sand could be used. Anti-frac-sand interests complained that it placed no limits on how many mines could be built, and imposed insufficient restrictions on other aspects such as dust, blasting and reclamation.
Dennis Egan, spokesman for the Frac Sand Industry of Minnesota, said the county could rely on new state regulations that provide assistance to local governments that are concerned about sand mining.
"Our hope is that they would take advantage of those," he said.
Houston County, which lies just south of Interstate 90 in the far southeastern corner of the state, is home to 19,000 people.
Like much of the surrounding area in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, it has deep underground deposits of a silica sand that is ideal for hydrofracking.
Large frac-sand mines have popped up across much of western Wisconsin, but the boom has been slowed in Minnesota by a two-year statewide environmental regulatory review, plus temporary moratoriums in several counties and townships as local governments struggled to manage the controversy.
Those moratoriums have mostly lapsed, but several counties and townships in southeastern Minnesota have adopted regulations to limit or manage sand mining.