Tevlin: Let’s stop and think about frac-sand mines

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2012 - 11:48 PM

The small plane banked to the right over western Wisconsin, allowing a view of the rolling green hills pocked with large tan holes made by frac-sand mines. Then, near Chippewa Falls, the forests gave way to a massive hole and three sprawling rectangles of brown and blue -- holding ponds -- that made the landscape look like a game board.

Machines clawed at the hills, and dozens of trucks lumbered down local roads extending from the region's largest frac-sand mine.

"Wow, look at the size of that," said state Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing. "It's huge."

From above, you could get a feel for how sand mining has spread across Wisconsin. Howe wanted to get a firsthand look because this kind of mining is coming to his southern Minnesota district, and it's coming at warp speed.

A few years ago, there were only a handful of sand mines along both sides of the Mississippi, and much of that sand was used for roads. But then the oil industry discovered that silica sand could be forced into cracks in the earth to bring up oil, and suddenly the dirt along the river became a treasure.

There are now more than 60 mines operating along the Wisconsin border, with more than 40 more permits pending. Minnesota, according a DNR map, has at least five existing sand mines and six permits pending. But almost every week this summer, there have been meetings in town halls and tiny townships over mining expansion, with more permits being requested.

The mines offer jobs and economic benefits, and no doubt bring some. But many residents are quickly realizing that the industrialization of their region, while good for the small number of lucky landowners who will get rich, could ruin their own businesses and way of life.

That's why Howe, a conservative who generally favors local control on land-use issues, recently sent a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton asking for help and $1 million for a general environmental impact study.

"It has become apparent to me as I have delved deep into these concerns, that simply not enough information is known, or expertise available, to make the important decisions which affect the health and safety of the citizens of my district," Howe wrote. "With several communities' moratoriums on silica sand mining about to expire, it is vital that they get solid factual information about the issues."

"I just think we need some state guidance," he said. "These small towns are not used to dealing with something on this scale."

Howe hoped the Legislature might take the issue up in the special session in August, but he acknowledges it's unlikely.

"If we wait until the next session, it will be a year before we have a discussion," said Howe.

Most people who fear the impact of the mine race say that will be too late.

Richard Johnson, of Red Wing, is one of them. He wrote to Dayton to say the area "is rapidly under siege."

"There is something happening every day, and it's substantial," said Johnson. "When they buy land, they don't even bother to get a conditional use permit; they just write a check because they're certain they'll get approval."

Howe said land owners are being offered three times the going rate for land, but Johnson heard of a farmer who was offered $4 million for 150 acres, nearly 10 times the price of land.

"I've lived near Lake Pepin for 46 years and [have] never seen anything like this," said Johnson. "It's mind-boggling."

Howe and Johnson are right. We need to learn from Wisconsin how quickly the sand mine boom can overtake a region.

We need to ask people such as Debra McClure, who lives near Prescott. McClure is no anti-mining tree-hugger; in fact, she works for an oil refinery. But she fears the industry is moving so rapidly without much consideration to the big picture.

She's currently worried about a mine near her home that would send out a sand truck every two to four minutes, to a 14-story sand station on the river.

And we need to talk to the people of Buffalo County, farther south, where Tuesday night the county board of adjustments met to discuss a proposed frac plant that would send up to 1,000 trucks a day within 1,500 feet of a school.

Wisconsin's experience should prompt Dayton and the Legislature to come to a bipartisan decision to quickly fund a study and declare a statewide moratorium.

Before it's too late.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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