The refrain heard over and over again in Minnesota’s pitched political battle over frac sand mining this year was: “We don’t want to be Wisconsin.”
Just across the border lie leveled bluffs, groundwater-draining processing facilities and communities choked by truck congestion — the result of Wisconsin’s mine-first, ask-questions-later regulatory approach to sand mining. But because of the farsighted work done by a courageous county on that state’s western edge — declaring a 12-mile strip of bluffland a frac-free zone — Minnesotans who want to ensure that sand mining is done responsibly should now look east for examples of what to do, instead of only what not to do.
“Other folks can do this,’’ said Bill Mavity, a retired Twin Cities attorney who now lives in Pepin County, serves on the County Board and played a critical role in crafting the frac-free zoning ordinance, thought to be the first of its kind. Protections like this “are increasingly important because of how large the industry is that is coming and the clout and the power that they have.’’
A legislative session in which Minnesota lawmakers steadily whittled down new state-level safeguards to the bare minimum should especially prompt southeast Minnesotans to give serious scrutiny to Pepin County’s proactive measure.
While sand has been mined across Minnesota for decades, the state’s environmentally fragile southeast corner contains accessible deposits now in high demand. The sand is a key ingredient in a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used to unlock deposits of natural gas and oil.
Citizens concerned about potentially explosive growth in sand mining went in busloads to the State Capitol this session seeking safeguards to protect the region’s picturesque communities and vibrant tourism industry. Among the concerns: that sand mining could disrupt the cold, clear waters that supply drinking water and are the lifeblood of the area’s world-class trout streams.
But lawmakers rejected sweeping environmental protections such as a moratorium on sand mining in favor of more limited protections — such as new state permitting authority over sand mines near trout streams.
Regulation and permitting of sand mining is generally left to local governments in Minnesota. One of the complaints often heard from cities, townships and counties is they lack the resources to properly regulate the industry and feel pressured by wealthy companies to approve new projects.
In addition to protecting the majestic bluffs soaring above its stretch of the Mississippi River, the Pepin County frac-free ordinance is a model for how county governments can put in place strong safeguards on their own. The ordinance was approved 9-3 by the Pepin County Board of Supervisors in late June.
The beauty of the ordinance is that it smartly wields a power already delegated to local governments — zoning — to permanently protect an area and make sure its use reflects citizens’ wishes, which is what zoning laws are intended to do. The protected stretch covers much of Wisconsin’s side of Lake Pepin, a wide spot in the Mississippi.
The ordinance is the result of the good work by conscientious local citizens who first banded together to block a sand transport facility outside Stockholm, Wis. They quickly realized that they needed to be proactive, not just reactive, to protect their quality of life. The area’s numerous retired professionals researched the best way to protect the bluffland and settled on a mechanism known as “overlay zoning.” Then they raised money to hire an attorney to draft the ordinance and worked to build support.
Those who pushed for the Pepin County protections hope that Minnesotans across the big lake will use their work as a template to put their own protections in place. Legal experts contacted by an editorial writer said that overlay zoning should be a tool available to Minnesotans.
At some point, Mavity would like to ease back into retirement. Nevertheless, he’s willing to serve as a regional resource on sand-mining safeguards. “This area has a special beauty,’’ he said. “If you do heavy industrial mining, you destroy that beauty, and there’s no way you can ever bring it back.’’