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.