Sand mining plans draw fire in Scott

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2012 - 11:25 AM

Two proposals for silica mines near the Minnesota River are raising concern.

Western Scott County is the latest area of the Midwest to be swept up into the craze for "fracking," with public hearings looming on two proposals to mine silica sand in the vicinity of Hwy. 169 south of Shakopee.

Officials at the nearby federal wildlife refuge are expressing concern, and many others are expected to come forward as well.

Here's a quick backgrounder on what's being proposed, and what's being said about it:

'FRACKING?'

High-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is revolutionizing the energy industry in states such as North Dakota.

Drillers inject water and chemicals into shale thousands of feet below ground to liberate gas and oil. The thousands of wells around the world each need thousands of tons of sand. And one of the greatest sources is the Jordan sandstone formation, which stretches from Mankato into Wisconsin.

1,200 ACRES OF SAND

Two proposals to mine this sand are being advanced in Scott County:

• Great Plains Sands would be operating at the site of silica mining that used to take place, up to about 20 years ago, for other uses, between Shakopee and Jordan.

• Merriam Junction Sands would take advantage of what were once limestone mining sites stretching south from Hwy. 41.

The second of these is far larger, and the two sites together add up to about 1,200 acres.

WHY WORRY?

Wherever they pop up, these mines face opposition on a number of grounds -- enough to have led to multiple moratoriums on mining in other Minnesota counties.

Among the concerns:

• Blasting often is needed to free sand from sandstone, creating loud noise.

• Unless rail can be used -- and it might be here to some extent -- truck traffic can be relentless, day and night.

• Sand particles in the air create fear of effects on peoples' lungs.

LOCAL CONCERNS

The sites in Scott County carry extra potential for worry, some say.

Jordan, seeking to carve out a niche as a sweetly serene little Stillwater-esque biking center with historic character, already faces a proposed gravel mine even closer to its borders. Some worry that these new mines would heighten the sense of becoming an industrial area.

"They're turning Jordan into a gravel pit and we have to deal with the consequences," said Jordan Mayor Pete Ewals.

The sites also run alongside one of the rare instances of an urban wildlife refuge: the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Concerns about effects on recreational users and wildlife helped put the kibosh on an earlier plan to use some of this land for an amphitheater a few years back.

"One of the most popular trails in the state runs very close to these proposed mines," said refuge manager Charlie Blair. "As the south metro develops, this refuge is going to be more and more important for outdoor recreation. We need to do what we can to maintain that experience."

Developers are talking about ending up, decades from now, with a deep lake and surrounding upland open space, and Blair concedes that in the long run, mining could yield a benefit to the refuge.

"We're not interested in stopping all development there, but we are asking for noise mitigation to protect the refuge and the public's experience, not to mention the wildlife."

STATUS?

Great Plains is finishing up an "environmental assessment worksheet" and is expected to move into the permitting process this spring, county officials say. Merriam Junction is starting on an environmental impact statement.

There's a meeting on the latter at 9:30 a.m. on March 13 in the Scott County Board Room aimed at gathering public comment on what officials should look at in terms of the Merriam Junction plan.

Around the same time, there's a decision coming up on the adequacy of the worksheet for the Great Plains project.

TO LEARN MORE

Check the county's website at www.co.scott.mn.us. There's a link from the home page that leads to more background on these proposals and to state-level sites explaining even more.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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