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Continued: Good jobs hang in the balance of Minnesota's frac sand debate

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 25, 2013 - 9:03 PM

One of the company’s core products is a crushed limestone playing surface for baseball and softball diamonds, but now the company is poised to expand into frac sand. Its pending application for a permit to mine frac sand on 680 acres in Scott County, including silica deposits that currently lie below its Shakopee limestone pit, will extend the life of the quarry and give rise to 50 to 70 new jobs, Matt Bryan said.

Bryan’s so-called Merriam Junction Sands project will require an investment of $40 million to build a railroad yard and buy equipment to wash and sort the sand. The site borders the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Bryan said a lengthy environmental study required by Scott County will cost the companies about $2 million. Waiting for a statewide environmental study could delay the project without adding any value, Bryan said. And a state moratorium would simply kill certain projects, he said, because some investors will go elsewhere.

“These kinds of jobs are pretty substantial for our community,” Matt Bryan said.

Empty promises?

But not everyone is convinced. Jim Drost, an engineer from Stillwater who used to work for the U.S. Bureau of Mines, said mining companies often overstate the number of jobs they will create when they apply for operating permits. And, he said, many of the roughly 2,800 new mining jobs in Wisconsin have gone to contractors, including independent operators who don’t receive fringe benefits.

Others say the jobs can flicker off and on depending on the market for frac sand. In rural areas where processing centers are built, Drost said, the best jobs often go to outsiders with previous experience.

Lynn Schoen, a Wabasha City Council member, said a sand rail-loading facility now being built could kill more jobs in tourism and the town’s medical services than it creates. Heavy truck traffic in the historic river town, she said, is likely to alienate visitors.

Even if the facility employed a lot of local residents, no number of new jobs could justify environmental pollution that could result from lax standards, she said.

In North Mankato, another traditional mining company has proposed a frac sand project that would create 35 new jobs paying $20 to $25 an hour, plus benefits. Scott Sustacek, CEO of Jordan Sands, said the new facility is set to open next year — if Minnesota doesn’t pass a moratorium or impose other new permitting delays.

Greater Mankato Growth, the area’s chamber of commerce, has estimated that the Jordan Sands project will have an immediate, local economic impact of more than $60 million and could generate an ongoing economic impact of more than $100 million a year.

Steve Hine, research director for Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, said starting wages of $20 or more for workers who hold nothing more than a high school diploma would be “very competitive” in Minnesota.

Overall in Minnesota, private-sector union jobs have been disappearing and construction jobs tanked badly in the recession. From 2011 to 2012, Minnesota lost 32,000 union jobs, while total employment in the state actually increased, according to a federal tally. But Hine said the state has recently seen steady growth in high-end blue-collar jobs and expects more this summer from new construction.

George, the union official, said the Legislature has to strike a balance that allows the industry to grow. “We’re talking about hundreds of jobs right now,” George said. “But it could be thousands.”

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213


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