Even in a legislative session marked by pitched battles over taxes, the health care exchange and child care unionization, the debate over how to regulate an industry poised for rapid growth in southeastern Minnesota — frac sand mining — stood out in emotion and intensity.
In packed Capitol hearing rooms, citizens and local government officials from this environmentally fragile part of the state pleaded for a mining moratorium and broad state regulatory authority to protect scenic bluffs, cold-water trout streams and picturesque towns. Industry advocates championed mining’s economic development potential as demand grows for the region’s desirable sand — a key ingredient in hydraulic fracturing, a process used to unlock deposits of oil and natural gas.
Over the course of the session, sweeping environmental protections such as a moratorium or a sensible ban on mining within a mile of region’s trout streams fell by the wayside, a testament to industry lobbying strength.
But a deal brokered late in the session with Gov. Mark Dayton’s leadership yielded smaller, yet potentially valuable new safeguards. Among them: a new permitting role for the state Department of Natural Resources for mining operations proposed near sensitive trout streams, the creation of air quality rules for particulate emissions by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and development of “model ordinances” to help local government, which still shoulders much of the responsibility in the state for approving sand mines, to better regulate the industry.
The acreage threshold for a mine’s size that triggers an environmental review has also been lowered.
While it’s too soon to tell how effective these safeguards will be, their existence offers reason to be hopeful that Minnesota will not repeat the mistakes of mine-first, regulate-later Wisconsin, where the industry has leveled bluffs, has built vast processing facilities and has sent heavy truck traffic through small communities with too few questions asked.
“It’s not nearly what a number of us would have liked, but it’s a start,’’ said Lynn Schoen, a Wabasha, Minn., City Council member who has long raised concerns about local government’s ability to push back against the well-funded industry. “If everybody is given the tools and the freedom to enforce what has been set down, it may be somewhat helpful.’’
The Legislature may have adjourned, but there’s still a need for strong leadership from Dayton on sand mining going forward, especially in the next few months.
Work is just beginning on developing the new DNR permitting process, the model regulations and other protections, but much of it must be completed by October. Dayton needs to send a clear message to regulators that the new procedures and policies will result in meaningful environmental protection.
State agencies can have a lot of leeway in the development and implementation of new safeguards. They can also be susceptible to lobbying by industry and other special interests — not having an outright ban on mining near trout streams or even stronger prohibitions regrettably left that avenue open. Dayton should leave no uncertainty that the goal here is maximum protection of southeast Minnesota’s unique geology and quality of life.
In addition, the DNR should continue its advocacy for mining protections as it plays a new, expanded role in permitting. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr was easily one of the most effective proponents of sand mining protections during the legislative session. Unlike past commissioners, Landwehr used his high-profile position to push for 5,000-foot setbacks from trout streams The DNR’s chief should be one of the leading voices for natural resource protection, and Landwehr lived up to that responsibility.
The DNR permitting role is likely the most meaningful component of the new sand mine protections. The agency’s vigorous use of this authority in the future — one that starts with a strong presumption that mining is risky close to trout streams — is a natural extension of the Landwehr’s admirable advocacy and stewardship of the state’s valuable resources.