ST. PAUL — A Red Wing Republican who opposes a moratorium on silica sand mining is pushing another approach to deal with concerns about the mining's impact on the region.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, has introduced a bill that would create a Silica Sand Technical Advisory Council comprised of technical experts from four state agencies — the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Department of Health and Department of Transportation. The council would have until Oct. 1 to write a model ordinances report comparing various local ordinances pertaining to silica sand mining. It would also make the council available to assist local units of government in evaluating a mining project. He said he has come to believe this is the best way to address the concerns of residents and local governments.

"The most important thing has always been we need help setting standards, and we need to protect the individual. That has always been the driving force," Kelly said.

But critics argue that the bill's failure to include a moratorium and a requirement for a statewide Generic Environmental Impact Statement means it won't adequately protect the public from the possible hazards of silica sand mining.

"We would say it really falls short of what citizens and local government officials have asked for the state legislature to do, and the bill really won't prevent the frac-sand industry from destroying southeast Minnesota like it has western Wisconsin," said Bobby King, program organizer with the Land Stewardship Project.

Regional issue

Southeastern Minnesota is at the forefront of a silica-sand mining boom. The fine sand is a key ingredient in the process of hydraulic fracturing of "fracking." The technique involves pumping sand, water and chemicals into oil and natural gas wells within shale formations. The high-pressure mixture creates fractures in the rock, releasing the oil and gas trapped inside. Several southeastern Minnesota counties have passed temporary moratoriums on silica-sand mining as officials weigh the potential effects, including heavy truck traffic and the threat of lung disease from airborne crystalline silica.

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, has been pushing ahead with a bill that would require a statewide Generic Environmental Impact Statement on silica sand mining be completed by May of 2014 and imposes a temporary moratorium. His bill would also allow counties in southeast Minnesota to form a joint-powers board tasked with setting minimum standards for silica sand mining.

Schmit said he is glad to see the Minnesota House is joining the discussion on how to address regional silica sand mining. He has agreed to sponsor Kelly's bill in the Senate. When asked whether he thinks a moratorium needs to be a part of the final bill, he said that he is "not married to any one provision so long as we get this right."

He added, "The most important thing here is that we answer these remaining questions regarding water, air and transportation impacts. Another thing that is really important is that we have a conversation among local leaders and agency leaders."

Industry favors Kelly bill

Dennis Egan, executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, said his organization favors Kelly's bill. They are strongly opposed to a moratorium, which he said will unfairly penalize mining companies across the state that have already sunk millions of dollars into completing environmental reviews. Instead, it makes sense to have a technical advisory council where local governments can get answers to their questions.

"If we can find the dollars and the expertise for the state agencies to drill down and work in those communities on their specific issues, we think that is a great way to go," he said.

Then there are the political challenges of getting a moratorium passed. Democrats from Minnesota's Iron Range have historically opposed measures that increase restrictions on mining. They include the Senate's majority leader — Tom Bakk of Cook.

Kelly, whose own home is a quarter mile away from a proposed silica sand mining site, said while his bill does not contain a moratorium provision, he expects local governments would wait until October to issue any permits so they can see what comes out of the council's report. He said it is important to slow down on mining, but he said doing a statewide study doesn't make sense when each proposed site is so different.

"You need studies done on every project that is permitted," he said, "so why would we waste the dollars and time doing a Generic Environmental Impact Statement that doesn't mean anything and you are going to have to do an environmental study yourself for the purpose of site specific environmental permitting?"

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