Sand mining debate moves south to Winona

The controversy over frac sand mining has spread to yet another pocket of southeastern Minnesota.

Dozens of people showed up for a Winona County Planning Commission meeting Thursday night, where commissioners were scheduled to discuss proposals for three sand mine operations in the Saratoga township. But the public comments went on until 1 a.m. and commissioners decided to table the proposal until their Nov. 17 meeting.

Planning commissioners asked for more time to study issues surrounding frac sand mining before making a recommendation to the county board, according to Winona County Zoning Administrator Eric Johnson.

Johnson said residents voiced concerns about road safety, as well and environmental and health issues.

Parts of southeastern Minnesota are full of “frac sand,” highly sought after for its size and strength. With perfectly round grains that look like brown sugar crystals, the sand is ideal for the oil and natural gas exploration, which uses it to extract fuel from underground rock in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The sand in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois is considered some of the best frac sand in North America because it’s chemically inert and can withstand intense pressure needed to break rock.

But in some areas of southeastern Minnesota, the sand is buried deep in the ground and the process of extracting that sand has met with environmental and health concerns. Earlier this year, Goodhue and Wabasha counties put a moratorium on sand mining mines.

The natural gas industry denies widespread problems. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a national study to evaluate the environmental contamination in gas drilling areas around the country and expects to release its findings sometime next year.

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