Minn. to release draft guidelines to help local governments regulate silica sand mining boom

  • Article by: STEVE KARNOWSKI , Associated Press
  • Updated: December 12, 2013 - 2:36 PM

The state Environmental Quality Board on Friday will release a draft set of model standards to help towns regulate mining for sand used in oil and gas exploration. March 2012 file photo of a 50,000 ton pile of sand in downtown Winona, with the city's law enforcement center in background.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Minnesota plans to release a draft set of model standards Friday to help communities struggling to regulate the boom in mining for silica sand, which oil and gas drillers use for hydraulic fracturing.

They're meant to give smaller governments a toolbox of approaches they can tailor to cope with sand mining's effects on the environment, public health and roads and bridges. The Environmental Quality Board plans to post the draft on its website Friday to start a 30-day public comment period, and to hold a public meeting Wednesday to discuss details.

"We're trying to make sure local decision-makers have the tools they need to best address the concerns in their communities," said Will Seuffert, the EQB's executive director.

The voluntary standards are among several steps the 2013 Legislature ordered to address silica sand mining, which Minnesota has regulated mostly on the local level so far. State agencies are also drafting regulations — which will have force of law — to say when projects trigger formal environmental reviews, to deal with air quality issues near silica sand operations, and to update state requirements for reclaiming closed mines. The Department of Natural Resources has already begun requiring permits for facilities within a mile of designated trout streams. The DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are also creating a silica sand advisory committee.

The drilling industry considers the silica sand in the soft sandstone under western Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota and some other parts of the state to be among the best available. The pure, round grains have the ideal size and hardness for propping open the underground cracks created by hydraulic fracturing and allowing oil and gas to flow out. And the deposits lie close to the surface, making them cheaper to mine. Minnesota currently has nine silica and mines or processing facilities, compared with over 100 in Wisconsin, where looser regulations and a better-positioned railroad network helped the industry get off to a faster start.

But many residents and local officials in both states object. They fear health problems from silica dust, which can cause cancer under certain circumstances. They also raise concerns about water supplies, agriculture, tourism and the wear on roads and bridges and other disruptions from heavy truck traffic of sand mining. Common concerns in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota also include protecting the scenic landscape and the region's fragile geology.

Seuffert declined to be very specific about the standards, but said they've been revised to address objections to an initial draft released earlier this year. They have stronger provisions for monitoring air quality and for geological and hydrological studies. He said EQB's goal is to approve the final version Feb. 19.

Bobby King, an organizer with the Land Stewardship Project, said the standards will be useful, but noted that local governments are free to ignore them.

"They don't really guarantee any protections," King said. Far more important, King said, will be the regulations still in the pipeline and the yet-to-be announced membership of the advisory committee.

King said activists want the standards to lay out a range of approachs, including a ban on sand mining if that's what a community wants.

The sand mining industry will study the draft and respond at Wednesday's meeting, said Dennis Egan, executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. He said the industry believes each project should be evaluated individually, on the particulars of each site.

Gov. Mark Dayton drew applause in Winona last week when he expressed reservations about silica sand mining. King said his statements should guide the agencies involved.

"Personally I would ban frack sand mining in southeastern Minnesota," Dayton said. The governor said he's less concerned about areas with significant deposits that are less sensitive, such as the Mankato area of south-central Minnesota. "But this area is so vulnerable ... and so bucolic and you've got a way of life here that's so appealing to people. The number of jobs that you get out of frack sand mining, for the lasting environmental damage, to me in this case is not worth it," he said.

Dayton made similar comments at the State Fair in August, and his spokesman, Matt Swenson, said Dayton's position has not changed.

EQB members are appointed by the governor and listen to his concerns, Seuffert said, but added that the Legislature gave the board a mandate that it has to follow.

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