Tevlin: Frac observers make haste to keep eyes, options open

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2013 - 9:48 PM

When a company that owns both a frac sand mine in Minnesota's Fillmore County and land near an old railroad track in northern Iowa began frantically cleaning up the rail site last week, people got nervous.

Was the company planning to move tons of sand to the rail site in anticipation of an eventual rail line? If so, trucks soon would begin rumbling through small tourist towns such as historic Spring Grove, which boasts that it is "in a setting of unparalleled beauty, it is fresh air, endless natural wonder and clean horizons."

As news of the cleanup spread, Jeff Abbas, an Iowa farmer concerned about mining, received calls and e-mails from people in southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

"One of our biggest concerns is how much [frac sand companies] will try to do under the radar to get grandfathered in," said Abbas. "I had 70 to 80 people ready to drive down, link arms and stop them."

One of them was Donna Buckbee, a member of the Houston County Protectors, a group opposed to frac sand mining in Minnesota.

"People were ready to do civil disobedience," said Buckbee. "We are prepared to be arrested."

Turns out the cleanup was a false alarm. So far.

But the incident shows that residents of the three states are much more aware and coordinated on the issue than last year, when companies quietly began filing mining permits.

With state legislatures back in session and politicians gathering to decide what to do, if anything, about the looming boom in frac sand mines, those opposed worry they will see a surge in activity by companies trying to beat potential actions to slow or control them.

On Monday, some legislators from areas where the valuable silica sand is located met with Gov. Mark Dayton to discuss the issue. Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, expects bills to be drafted as early as this week.

"I would have liked to drop a bill the first week of the session," said Schmit. But he said he's been "doing due diligence" and meeting with the various stakeholders since he was elected in November.

"This is an industry that's going to move into southeastern Minnesota, that's not a question," said Schmit. "There's a lot of momentum for a GEIS [general environmental impact statement], and there are other things on the table."

Katherine Tinucci, press secretary for Dayton, said the governor brought together the legislators and several commissioners to discuss the many complicated facets of mining.

"This is an important issue, and one that I expect we will have to deal with at the state level this session," Tinucci said. 

Those with concerns about the potential environmental, health and lifestyle impact of frac sand mining say a GEIS is a good start, but they are hoping for a lot more.

The Land Stewardship Program, for example, is working on state legislation that would put a two-year moratorium on frac sand mining and processing in southeast Minnesota, and would instruct state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and Department of Health to determine parameters for the industry, according to policy program organizer Bobby King.

"The industry is too new and moved into the area so fast that we need the time to assess what effective state regulations would be," said King.

King said the group plans to introduce legislation within two weeks that might "make some improvements to the environmental review process based on problems we have seen with it in Winona County."

Like other small communities, "Winona County doesn't have the staff or expertise to be the lead on environmental review for these operations," King said.

King said the frac issue is very similar to the factory farm issue. "With factory farms, the industry moved in before there was meaningful state level regulations and we had huge problems all over the state," said King. " Eventually we passed state level regulations, but a lot of people were harmed before that happened."

That's why people like Abbas and Buckbee are part of a growing network keeping an eye open. Members are even offering to help with bail if anyone gets arrested.

"I've heard legislators in Iowa say the issue doesn't concern the whole state," said Abbas. "They don't know how wrong they are. It's a regional issue that will have a huge impact on all of us."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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