SE Minnesota residents not digging the ‘sand rush’

Frac sand mining is to silica-sand rich Goodhue, Wabasha, and Winona counties, as a certain football stadium is to Ramsey County. The subject can draw a crowd as it did tonight in Winona where the county planning commission faced proposals for three sand minds in the county. Goodhue and Wabasha counties have already put a moratorium on the mines, and Winona County is under some pressure to do so.

The sand is used in so-called “hydraulic fracturing” — fracking — in which it’s mixed with water and chemicals and used to split rock formations underground to release natural gas or oil. It’s a practice that’s drawn environmental and health concerns in states where it’s used. But the process of extracting the sand — the sand in Minnesota is considered perfect because it can stand up to the rock it’s used to split — has worried residents of the region because the silica sand in some cases is buried deep in the ground.

This video from the summer shows a silica sand mining operation in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin.

Over 100 residents showed up last night in Winona, most to object to the three Saratoga Township mine proposals (they would encompass about 19 acres) that the county highway engineer says will overburden area roads.

“Most of our economic activity is derived from truck traffic,” countered geologist Jeff Broberg of Elba, on behalf of the mine developers. “While the concerns are a legitimate concern, the need to have roads that can support economic activity are just as important. You can’t mine sand where it doesn’t exist… Do we have people out there making money and turning our natural resources into economic assets?”

“Fracking of wells in North America has increased our petroleum production 30 percent in the last eight years,” he said, warning the Commission not to embrace a proposed moratorium on sand mining operations.

He described a mining operation that looks nothing like the video above. “We can go in with payloaders and skim it off,” he said. “It has a very thin soil cover. The groundwater is deep below the surface. There isn’t a stream around for miles.”

“If you can imagine hundreds of trucks going through our small towns, what’s that going to be like?” Winona resident Reggie McLeod said.

“We’re doing a lot of discussion about how it affects our health. I’m worried about people like my grandson who lives in western New York where this stuff is going. Don’t we have a moral obligation to be concerned?” Don Nelson of Winona said. He encouraged residents to attend a film festival on frac mining that he’s hosting, “to come see what it looks like when people set the water coming out of their faucet on fire.” (Or just go here)

But a Wisconsin resident said curtailing mining operations on the Minnesota side of the river would be a missed economic opportunity. Sand from Wisconsin mines already is trucked to the city to get to the Union Pacific Railroad and barges on the Mississippi, he said, and the mine operators pay the city nothing.

“If people didn’t think I was crazy, I’d pick this thing (the podium) up and shake it, because that’s what happens in my house now with all the trucks,” one resident said. “Everyone’s talking about their economic needs. What about mine?”

“I’m not against people making money, but we need to observe the rights of the rest of the citizens of the county,” Barb Nelson of Lewiston, said, after describing a talc-like powder on her furniture near another sand-mining operation.

“That’s the cancer-causing silica,” another speaker told her. “It goes into your lungs.”

“It’s sand, not nuclear waste,” Winona resident Ted Hazelton said near the conclusion of the meeting.

The Commission tabled a decision until next month.

  • Great post Bob. I hadn’t realized that the fracking industry was reaching all the way here to MN.

    I don’t know if I’m being silly here, but I’m thinking about Lybia today. All the reporting from there is talking about Lybia now has a chance to have a new life, and how lucky they are to have oil as a resource that will help them rebuild (or whatever). But when has oil helped any country where it’s been found besides Norway?

    Perhaps these areas need to look at this resource in their land, and figure out a way to safely extract it to the benefit of the community as a whole, and not to the benefit of the energy companies that are wanting it.

  • Sao Paulo

    gml4: Where else has oil benefited a country?

    How about Brazil, which just discovered some of the largest new oil fields this summer? They were already emerging as an economic powerhouse, and now they may be able to supply more of their own energy while becoming a major exporter.

    Or, how about Dubai? Although they’ve retained some antiquated customs of other Islamic countries, they’ve built a dream city in the middle of a desert.

    How about Russia? Without oil production revenue, their economy could have collapsed years ago, sending one of the largest, and most potentially dangerous, countries into chaos.

    How about North Dakota, where fracking and other forms of oil production have kept unemployment at less than 1/2 of the national rate, and have kept the state’s budget in the black?

  • Bob Collins

    As with any discussion involving resources and economics, it becomes a question of risk vs. benefit.

  • bench

    I always find these discussion fascinating.

    On one hand, people want materials. They want their Rare Earth Elements so they can have their new iPhones, they want platinum so they can have catalytic converters, they want petroleum so they can have gasoline and plastic, and of course coal so they can power everything…. however, everyone always seems to be against it due to the environmental impacts.

    In my opinion, more harm is probably done by consuming the products MADE from the resources than the production of them. How many people throw away plastic or electronic gadgets (or batteries)? Companies are regulated by the EPA and consumers are not.

    While there are many against fracking, how many are willing to pay $5/gallon for gas instead of tapping into these previously uneconomically viable fields?

  • Happy

    Yah, keep digging to get what you want, meanwhile shoving anything or anyone (indigenous peoples) out of the way.

    Like Bench said the end result for easier access or instant gratification via this route is more toxic to us and our environment.

    When will we learn? When Karma blows up in our faces?

  • Ron Converse

    Fracking pumps water (lots of it) and chemicals deep under ground. They refuse to tell us what those chemicals are. Why do you suppose that is?

  • Bench, you say ‘they’ and ‘people’. Sounds like you are looking in from the outside. The sand mining issue is on a scale that is hard to grasp. We have very little control over this multi billion dollar industry which is run by venture capitalists and hedge funds who say ‘trust me. We are paying a high cost that isn’t on the balance sheet yet. Do you really think the mining in a few Minnesota counties will keep the cost of world oil low?

  • bench

    I am simply pointing out that people want low prices while being able to consume resources. When you acknowledge the environmental impacts people start to get upset. It is a question of price vs. environmental impacts.

    And yes, I do think that drilling in America will lower gas prices in America…. along with providing jobs.

  • Amy

    Bench, agree completely and that issue only exists because environmental costs are not figured into the equation. “externalities” is what environmental costs remain in virtually everything we purchase, from energy to iphones. Figure environmental costs into purchase prices and you have an entirely different story. And one in which I do believe we’d demand products that protect our environment because ultimately, it is our health is finally valued in the products we purchase.

  • Adele

    The video of the Maiden Rock sand mine is just part of the noise the mine sends into the community. Think dozens of trucks hauling sand from factory to train and back to factory.

    The quiet country town is a joke!

  • a4alice