The frac sand fight in Minnesota has moved south along the Mississippi River from from Red Wing to Winona.
Today the Winona County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on whether or not it should adopt a moratorium
on mining for the sand crucial for hydrofracking. If so, it would be the latest among a handful of local
governments in Wisconsin and Minnesota that have agreed to stop, at least for a while, a booming business in
mining and processing silica sand.
Sand Mining operation in Maiden Rock, Wis. Star Tribune photo.
Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the best places in the country for silica, the perfectly round, inert sand that is in huge demand for hydrofracking, the controversial extraction technology that is transforming the U.S. domestic energy business. It comes from the 500 million-year-old Jordan sandstone formation that lies close to the surface in a large swathe of Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota.
Silica sand. Star Tribune photo.
Late last year Goodhue and Wabasha Counties passed moratoriums on sand mining in response to cries of alarm
from local residents who feared that the the distinctive rolling landscape and bluffs along the Mississippi would be flattened by open pit operations that extracted millions of tons of sand.
The debate in Winona County echoes those in other 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. In Winona, as elsewhere, local officials are weighing the potential economic benefits against fears of environmental damage and worse.
Silica sand causes cancer and other serious lung diseases among mine workers and others exposed to it on the job. But its affects on the public from environmental exposures are unknown.
Wisconsin Industrial sand mine in Menomonie, Wis.
Last year Wabasha County passed a moratorium on sand mining, even though no project is planned there, gaining time to review relevant ordinances. Goodhue County commissioners passed a one-year moratorium after months of
contentious lobbying on both sides of the issue. City councils in Red Wing and Lake City have voted for the moratorium, as did Hay Creek and Florence townships.
Sand mining opponents said the moratoriums would give local governments time to review the environmental and health issues before making major decisions that would affect the entire community.
Now, it's Winona's turn. Eight mining operations have been proposed for Saratoga Township in the southwest corner of the county, where the sand is close to the surface and easily extracted. According to county documents, the three proposals that have been reviewed so far would be less than 20 acres each, and only 5 acres at a time would be mined. Each would also run about 60 semi-trucks a day to processing facilities.
But county officials also said that these eight could be just the beginning.
As in other communities, the issue has generated enormous public interest. Earlier meetings have drawn a 100 more participants. No date has been set for the commissioners final vote. The board may or may not vote on the question tonight, but it has to make a decision on three of the proposed mines or they will be automatically approved.