Petition calls for two-year frac sand ban; Dayton won’t go it alone
RED WING, Minn. -- A group of Minnesota residents drove to the state Capitol on Tuesday to deliver a petition calling for a ban on silica sand mining in southeast Minnesota, but Gov. Mark Dayton said he wouldn’t act without the Legislature.
More than 6,000 people signed the petition for a two-year moratorium on mining silica, also called frac sand, in southeastern counties, as well as the creation of statewide regulations to protect water and air quality, according to the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit group for sustainable land policy.
Although Dayton supported a moratorium during the 2013 session, legal counsel has advised him against imposing a mining ban unilaterally, according to a statement Tuesday by press secretary Matt Swenson. He said citizens should instead urge local officials to enact regulations — including moratoriums — as authorized under state law.
The Land Stewardship Project contends Dayton can order a mining ban under the 1973 Critical Areas Act, which gives the state power to regulate areas “possessing important historic, cultural or esthetic values, or natural systems which perform functions of greater than local significance” that could be harmed by development.
“This directly applies to southeast Minnesota’s bluff country with its karst topography, world-class trout streams and strong heritage of family-farm agriculture,” said Marilyn Frauenkron Bayer, a Land Stewardship Project member from Winona County.
But using the Critical Areas Act would be an “overreach,” said Dennis Egan, executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. The former Red Wing mayor stepped down last spring amid controversy over his work with the industry group.
“There are no active proposals for new silica sand projects in southeastern Minnesota,” Egan said. “And state law ensures that any significant new projects will be subject to stringent environmental review before any permit decisions are made.”
Silica is used in hydraulic fracturing, a type of mining that uses water pressure to crack rock formations and extract oil and natural gas. Parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin are abundant in quartz-rich sand prized by mining companies.
Majority favor a ban
Delivery of the petition came a day after the Land Stewardship Project released a poll showing a majority of Minnesotans oppose increased silica mining in the state and favor a moratorium. About 64 percent of respondents said they support a two-year ban on new sand mines in southeastern Minnesota while research continues on environmental impacts.
“Action is needed because frac sand mining destroys the land, puts our aquifers at risk, decreases home values and pollutes our water and air, along with who knows what other unintended consequences,” Bayer said.
The group commissioned Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates and Public Opinion Strategies to conduct the poll in February. The sample included phone interviews with voters in Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Olmstead, Wabasha and Winona counties.
Mining proponents say regional sand mining will spur the economy and lead to energy independence through increased domestic oil output, but residents in potential mining spots have concerns about water and air contamination caused by sand extraction and processing.
“We cannot let short-term profits for a few investors come at the expensive of our environment and our small-town living,” said Lynn Schoen, a Wabasha City Council member. She was among the group that delivered the petition Tuesday.
A number of local governments around the region have considered or enacted mining bans and updated ordinances, including Goodhue County’s 30-month extended moratorium that expired March 6.
The Legislature passed laws last year directing the Environmental Quality Board, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies to develop regulations for silica operations and give technical assistance to counties and cities.
Egan said the new laws strengthen local governments, which are best suited to make land-use decisions in their jurisdictions.