Winona County commissioners on Tuesday ordered the county attorney to finalize language that would make it the first county in Minnesota to ban the highly contentious industry of frac sand mining.
After lengthy discussion weighing several options, commissioners voted 3-2 for language that would impose an outright ban on all industrial mineral operations, including frac sand mining, that initially was proposed last spring. A final vote is expected at the board's Nov. 22 meeting.
The vote was "a big step forward for the ban" of all frac sand mining in the county, said Johanna Rupprecht of the Land Stewardship Project.
Mining supporters in the county have said they're trying to protect private property rights, provide new jobs and preserve the region's chance to cash in on new developments in the nation's oil industry.
There are no mine permit applications pending in Winona County, due to a lull in sand mining that reflects a slump in worldwide energy production.
Still, the regulation of sand mining in Winona has generated intense interest, with recent public meetings packed with citizens.
Sand mining in Minnesota and Wisconsin has boomed and waned along with the oil and gas production practice known as hydrofracking. The particular kind of sand found in parts of southeast Minnesota was in huge demand by exploration companies, which use it to prop open cracks in the underground shale formations that produce oil and natural gas.
While some townships in southeast Minnesota have adopted bans or severe restrictions on sand mining, Winona is one of several counties that has struggled to manage proposals for massive sand pits in the face of often fierce local opposition. Some enacted temporary bans while they debated new zoning and other regulations. Houston County came close to passing a ban, but it provoked a bitter community fight and the effort eventually collapsed.
The administration of Gov. Mark Dayton has issued some regulations for sand mining, including a one-mile setback from trout streams. It's also created a set of model guidelines that local governments can use to mitigate the environmental problems that sand mining can cause.
Opponents, however, still fear destruction of scenic bluffs along the Mississippi River, health problems from blowing silica sand dust, contamination of groundwater, and damage to roads and more accidents from the trucks that cart sand to and from transportation hubs.
Tuesday night's meeting drew about 25 people, mostly supporting the ban. Some of them spoke, but most of the debate was among the commissioners.
Staff writer Pat Pheifer contributed to this report.