With all the smoke blowing about St. Paul, it is understandable that legislators are having a hard time seeing how urgent the need is for substantive protections for the unique water resources and trout fisheries in southeast Minnesota.

Claims have been made ("Frac-sand battle at Capitol is down to last chance," May 9) that minimum state protections are unnecessary because existing processes will ensure adequate protections from poorly sited silica sand mines. This is not the case.

Minnesota's public waters and fisheries are state resources owned by all citizens. The Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies are charged with protecting them. But, amazingly, there are significant gaps in the legislative grants of regulatory authority essential to adequately protect these resources.

The DNR does not have authority to keep silica sand mining away from springs, trout streams and sensitive groundwater tables. None.

It can ask a local government to protect these resources, but it cannot require it, and its pleas are frequently ignored. The DNR can regulate only through permitting, and none of the three possible permits — for water pumping, modifying the bed of a stream and the taking of sensitive species — can be used to restrict risky, destructive activity next to these sensitive resources.

Despite smokescreens about the many permits this industry must obtain, if someone wants to mine or quarry right next to a spring or trout stream, the state cannot stop them. No doubt this is why the DNR strongly supports the science-based minimum setbacks that are being proposed.

The frequent talk about environmental assessment worksheets, hydrologic studies and the development of model ordinances taking good care of things obscures the lack of regulation, and at best reflects a fundamental lack of understanding about environmental review.

All environmental review is just that — review. It is not regulation. Environmental worksheets and studies can provide useful information for regulators, but they are not regulatory documents.

They can provide information to local governments, whose decisionmakers may or may not have the technical expertise to truly appreciate the implications. But these local politicians are not required to, and often do not, follow the DNR's recommendations for protecting state resources.

A close study of remaining legislative provisions dealing with silica sand mining reveals them to be process only, with no guarantee of substantive protection for unique state resources. There are no minimum requirements and no state rulemaking authority in this area.

Despite the fact that our fisheries and public waters are statewide resources, their protection has inexplicably been dumped at the feet of overworked and understaffed local governments. The result has been a hodgepodge of standards.

Numerous local governments in southeast Minnesota have petitioned the state for assistance in dealing with these highly complex groundwater and fisheries protection issues. And while pending legislation proposes a process for state agencies to help develop model ordinances, there is no guarantee that all local units of government will adopt them, much less uniformly apply them.

The scientifically based setbacks for fragile springs, trout streams and groundwater tables that the DNR strongly supports enacting this session are surely the same standards the agency will later present to local governments and plead with them to adopt. This is no way to protect unique statewide resources for all Minnesotans. The Legislature should heed the expert advice of the DNR and adopt these minimum standards without delay.

The state has this one chance to create a useful road map for a new industry before the unwitting selection of inappropriate sites that needlessly destroy world-class trout fisheries and the thousands of existing jobs that depend upon them.


John P. Lenczewski is executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited.