Houston County is close to adopting a permanent ban on frac-sand mining — a step that would be a first in Minnesota and a new twist in the Midwest's sand-mining boom.

The County Board adopted the ordinance 5-0 this week in a preliminary vote, and it is expected to give it final approval this month after the county attorney reviews the language.

The vote followed an emotional three-hour public meeting Wednesday, where local residents argued that industrial sand mining would destroy the county's scenic Mississippi River bluffs and perhaps contaminate their water and trout streams.

"We have plenty of documentation that there are harmful effects," said Commissioner Justin Zmyewski, who introduced the ordinance. "There are concerns about the environment and infrastructure."

Houston County, which lies just south of Interstate 90 on the western banks of the Mississippi River in the far southeastern corner of the state, is home to 19,000 people. Like much of the surrounding area in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, it has deep underground deposits of a type of sand that is ideal for hydrofracking, a process for removing oil and gas from shale rock deep underground.

Large frac-sand mines have popped up across much of western Wisconsin to supply the nation's hydrofracking boom, but mining in Minnesota has been slowed by a two-year statewide environmental regulatory review, plus temporary moratoriums in several counties and townships as local governments struggled to manage the controversy.

Those moratoriums have mostly lapsed, but several counties and townships in southeastern Minnesota have adopted new regulations to limit or manage sand mining.

Houston County, however, is the only one to implement an outright prohibition against sand mines that produce more than 60,000 yards of sand per year.

"This is an amazing move and victory for the people," said Kelley Stanage, a Houston County resident and a member of the Land Stewardship Project, which has fought for the ban. "We must now be certain that the ordinance is monitored and enforced."

Sand council: mining is safe

Dennis Egan, executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, said that Minnesota already has the strictest state approval process in the country for silica sand projects and that the sand can be mined in a way that protects health and the environment.

"Silica sand has been mined in Minnesota for decades,'' Egan said in a statement. "It would be a real shame if bad information about silica sand mining is used to support a total ban.''

He also questioned whether counties have the authority to, in effect, regulate the end use of a product.

The proposed ordinance states that no sand mine can produce more than 60,000 cubic yards of sand per year, which means standard-sized sand and gravel pits can continue to operate. It also states that sand can be produced for use only in agriculture and construction.

No projects pending

Houston County commissioners were concerned that the county's small tax base could not support the wear and tear on roads expected from an increase in heavy truck traffic, Zmyewski said.

County officials also worried about the potential health risks from silica sand dust that could be emitted from open-pit sand mines. "Known carcinogens would be introduced to the air," Zmyewski said.

At this point, Houston County has no known sand mine projects pending, he said, largely because of a moratorium imposed while the commissioners considered how to handle the new industry.

One large southern Minnesota project that recently launched a required environmental review does not include Houston County. Rick Frick, founder of Minnesota Sands LLC, said the company has delivered $130,450 to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board to start the review.

Frick will submit a revised business plan by the end of February involving several related frac-sand operations in at least four counties: Winona, Fillmore, Olmsted, Goodhue and possibly Wabasha, he said.

Other bans

Though Houston County is likely to be the first county to ban large-scale sand mining in Minnesota, some smaller townships have done so. Pepin County in Wisconsin, across the river from Red Wing, has banned future sand mining along the scenic river corridor.

Zmyewski said he thinks the ordinance will withstand legal challenges, but added that he thinks they would be unlikely.

Sand-mining companies have plenty of options for developing projects elsewhere, he said, especially in Wisconsin, which has few regulations or restrictions.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394