Goodhue County to take a second look at sand mining

Goodhue County Board approved moratorium as sand deposits attract attention of the oil and gas industry.

Goodhue County on Tuesday imposed a one-year moratorium on any silica sand operations in the county, a move that could slow the mining boom in the Mississippi River valley.

About 100 residents opposed to the mining packed a meeting in Red Wing Tuesday night, successfully urging that commissioners delay issuing any mining permits while they study the consequences of the operation on nearby communities.

Last year, a Midland, Texas, drilling company purchased 155 acres of woods, cornfields and bluffs two miles south of Red Wing near a small housing development and up the hill from Hay Creek, a protected trout stream. It also has acquired land for what may be a transportation facility on the Mississippi near Frontenac.

Silica sand has become a valuable commodity in recent years because it is crucial to an oil- and gas-extraction technology called hydrofracking, which is transforming the domestic U.S. energy business.

Sand mining, however, has aroused local controversy in recent months as Red Wing-area residents organized around an effort for the moratorium. "We were elated and relieved" the board approved it, said Jody McIlrath, a member of the citizens group opposed to the mining operation.

"There's such a laundry list of issues that have to be studied and researched in terms of health and environment," she said. "The county will go through an extensive study of the impact that silica mining would have on natural resources and health issues and road and transportation concerns."

The debate in Goodhue County echoes those in small communities across Wisconsin and southern Minnesota as dozens of companies acquire land at high prices to supply drill rigs from New York to Texas.

Earlier this month Wabasha County passed a moratorium on sand mining, even though no project is planned there, gaining time to review relevant ordinances. City councils in Red Wing and Lake City have voted for the moratorium, as did Hay Creek and Florence townships. But the ultimate decision rests with the Goodhue County commissioners because the project is too small to trigger oversight from state agencies. They were expected to vote on the moratorium Tuesday night after a public hearing.

Opponents say the county shouldn't permit a mining facility near residential communities. They fear damage to local streams and groundwater, and they say the open pit mine will be a blight on Red Wing's beautiful rolling landscape. They are also concerned about potential health effects. Dust from silica sand can cause a number of lung diseases, including cancer.

Officials with the Texas drilling company, Windsor Permian, have not publicized their plans for the Goodhue County site, but they have emphasized their ability to protect neighbors and neighboring natural resources. In April, top executives of Gulfport Energy Corp., a large company affiliated with Windsor Permian, told investors that it had access to 20 million tons of high-quality sand reserves in Minnesota "which would supply our frac needs for the foreseeable future."

The hydrofracking process blasts a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into wells, creating fissures in the rock and freeing hard-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas. Hydrofracking has raised major environmental questions and is under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Wisconsin and Minnesota are among the few places in the country that can provide the perfectly round, inert silica sand used in the process; it comes from the 500-million-year-old Jordan sandstone formation that lies close to the surface in parts of both states.

According to Wisconsin news reports, at least 16 sand mines and processing facilities are operating in the state, and an additional 25 sites are proposed, in a diagonal swath stretching across 15 Wisconsin counties.

Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report. Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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