RED WING — Four months after signing a local ordinance that essentially bans silica sand mining in his district, Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan now finds himself representing — and advocating for — the controversial industry.
The peculiar situation has riled some.
Egan, who took office in 2011 and was re-elected in 2012, signed a contract Friday that installs him as executive director of the newly formed Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. The council is an organization of six Minnesota companies with an interest in mining silica sand, including the owner of a proposed St. Charles development, with Egan at its head. The council also represents the interests of companies involved in silica mining in an ancillary way, such as railroads, trucking and petroleum producers.
"The folks had gotten my name because that's what I do," said Egan, who has worked the last 10 years as a Capitol lobbyist. "It wasn't tied to anything other than 'Dennis, you've done this for 10 years and you have a good reputation.' My approach is you need to work in collaboration to move projects forward."
The new group has hired Minneapolis-based Larkin Hoffman law firm to serve as its lobbyist during the current legislative session, where Sen. Matt Schmitt, DFL-Red Wing, is expected to propose silica sand legislation later this week. Egan hopes to develop a list of best practices related to dust mitigation and other mining issues.
Southeastern Minnesota is at the forefront of the state's silica sand controversy. The issue first surfaced just a few miles from Red Wing when Windsor Permian, an Oklahoma-based energy company, purchased 155 acres of land in 2010 and expressed an interest in mining silica sand. Concerns spread rapidly through the region since then, with Winona, St. Charles and Wabasha being the current hot spots.
There are just five active silica sand mines in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but many new ones have been proposed. Demand for the hard, round sand has exploded due to advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil and natural gas, particularly in North Dakota.
Egan, who has previously served as the Chamber of Commerce President in Red Wing and Rochester, said that he's been brought in to resolve controversial situations in St. Louis and Ramsey counties, among others, in prior business deals. He's since created his own company called Egan Public Affairs, which specializes in such endeavors.
"It's another project in which you find passions on both sides of the aisle," Egan said of his new role. "I don't want to come across as downplaying that for southeast Minnesota. It's a big issue; I recognize that."
However, some aren't convinced Egan's new role is proper given his status as an elected official. Carol Overland, a Red Wing attorney, e-mailed the city council raising concerns about a conflict of interest, and her concerns don't appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Though council president Lisa Bayley declined comment and others didn't return calls, council member Peggy Rehder expressed frustration that she wasn't directly informed of Egan's plans; the news was first posted online Friday evening by "Politics in Minnesota."
Egan said he informed Red Wing City Administrator Kay Kuhlmann of the job offer prior to accepting; Kuhlmann was not available for comment.
"I'm puzzled," Rehder said. "I think we need more information and we need a legal opinion from the city attorney.
"You're absolutely right that people are concerned."
While the situation is expected to be discussed further at Monday's city council meeting, members of the citizen's opposition group Save The Bluffs see it as a clear conflict of interest.
"How can you represent citizens and the industry at the same time?" asked John Tittle, a Red Wing resident and Bluffs member. "It seems like it would be a conflict. It seems kind of obvious."
Egan responded to those challenges by saying the city ordinance had been approved for months by the time the sand companies approached him in late December. Should any new proposals be made, the mayor says he'd recuse himself from those discussions.