Committee recommends end to Goodhue County mine moratorium
RED WING — Despite cries of protest from critics — both old and new — Goodhue County appears intent on ending its silica sand mining moratorium next month.
On Monday, the county's planning advisory committee unanimously voted to recommend the county board not extend its moratorium, which is set to expire Sept. 6. That vote echoes a July 8 recommendation from the county's silica sand study committee, which has been meeting for most of the two-year interim ordinance.
The county board has scheduled a special meeting on Aug. 6 to conduct a public hearing and consider the issue. It has already updated the ordinance language twice — but the latest change passed on a 3-2 vote because two commissioners favored extending the moratorium instead.
"There's so much emotion that gets tied up in some of these things that you have to step back and actually look at what you have as a document," commissioner Dan Rechtzigel said. Rechtzigel is also on the planning commission.
"We felt unanimously as a planning commission that this document protects Goodhue County. Period," he said. "I certainly ain't gonna make any predictions, but I'm going to stand with the planning commission."
Silica sand mining has been a hot-button issue in southeastern Minnesota since Windsor Permian, an Oklahoma-based energy company, purchased 155 acres just south of Red Wing in 2011 for a silica sand mine. The sand is a valuable commodity used in hydraulic fracturing to capture natural gas and oil from deep within the earth.
Critics argue that silica sand mines and processing pose health and environmental issues. The industry contends that the mines will bring much-needed jobs to the region. Boards in Wabasha, Winona, Fillmore and Houston counties are all facing similar debates.
Protecting local tourism
Greg Schreck, Lake City's Tourism Bureau director, attended his first Goodhue County Planning Advisory Committee meeting on Monday and told committee members that the county is not doing enough to protect the $200 million tourism industry along the Mississippi River. Tourism in Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston counties accounts for 54,000 existing jobs.
Lake City, specifically, has reported tourism growth of up to 15 percent in recent years, Schreck said, including $2 million annually in just lodging. New hotels or motels are now being considered because existing facilities are often full during the summer, Schreck said.
"We're just starting to promote the area as Minnesota's South Shore," Schreck said. "There's so much potential there with The Jewel (golf course) and everything else. It's got everything from fishing to boating and the best harbor along the Mississippi, and it'd be just awful to mess that up.
"(Silica mining) could destroy the tourism industry completely in Lake City."
Proposed ordinance amendment
In addition to Schreck's criticism, the county may be forced to weigh an ordinance amendment filed just hours before Monday's planning commission meeting by Save the Bluffs.
The silica industry opposition group requests that the county develop an overlay district that bans silica mining at sensitive areas, along with an extension of the moratorium to develop that language. That extension could also allow the county to conduct a cost-benefit analysis, which may include the tourism effects raised by Schreck.
An overlay district was previously proposed by the county's consultant in 2012 and rejected by county officials.
"I guess what I'd like them to do is actually look at the material and take it seriously," said Amy Nelson, a spokeswoman for Save the Bluffs.
"It's very clear in talking to some of the commissioners and planning commission members that they haven't even read the materials submitted to them."
A potential outcome of an overlay district would be to ban all silica operations near Lake Pepin to protect tourism, as was recently done by Pepin County on the Wisconsin side of the river.
Timing will be tricky, though. The amendment can't be officially discussed by the planning commission until its Aug. 19 meeting, which is well after the county board's Aug. 6 meeting that could decide the moratorium's fate. The county's decision could be delayed until Sept. 3, but Rechtzigel says it might be a moot
point by then.
"I don't believe we need this in order to protect our county," he said. "I disagree that we need to have all of these things written in stone. It just defeats the point of handling these by conditional-use permits."