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Controversial figure departs frac sand debate in Houston County

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CALEDONIA — Something new and something old this week in Houston County has reignited the passionate debate about silica sand mining.

The resignation of Houston County planning and zoning administrator Bob Scanlan was formally announced Tuesday at the Houston County Board of Commissioners meeting by Human Resources Director Theresa Arrick-Kruger. His final day with the county is Aug. 21. No reason was cited during the public meeting and Scanlan was not available for comment on Wednesday, but Commissioner Teresa Walter said he's accepted a new job elsewhere.

"You can't hardly blame him because he's been under a lot of harassment over the last three years," Walter said. "Bob is just a wealth of knowledge. He's really going to be missed."

Tuesday's announcement ends a controversial era in the state's southeast corner, where some silica sand critics have been so boisterous that law enforcement has removed them from public meetings.

Scanlan was suspended for three days last year by the county board after an independent investigation determined that he retaliated against some people who were opposed to frac sand mining. The investigation, which included interviews with 26 people, concluded that Scanlan had subjected mining critics to bogus zoning violations, sent an angry email to the boss of a citizen opposed to silica sand mining, and violated other ethics and conflict-of-interest regulations while generally acting as an advocate for the mining industry.

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Those findings, revealed publicly in March via data requests by numerous media outlets, sparked an uproar among critics, including the Houston County Protectors, an opposition group that's worked for three years to ban all silica sand operations in the county.

Three additional complaints were filed in March against Scanlan by those opposed to silica sand mining. Ken Tschumper and Bryan Van Gorp, of HCP, have openly called for Scanlan to be removed from office.

The local opposition group issued a press release Tuesday announcing Scanlan's departure with a headline that used 30 exclamation points.

"Scanlan has long drawn the ire of frac sand mining opponents for his confused understanding of zoning regulations dealing with non-conforming mines," wrote Ken Tschumper, spokesman for HCP. "He also refused to bring enforcement actions against repeated violations at the Erickson mine near Rushford."

The impact of Scanlan's departure remains to be seen. Critics have routinely accused him of swaying county board members to support pro-mining language, including a surprising reversal in March that rejected an ordinance that would have banned silica sand mining. Instead, a three-year moratorium on silica sand mining expired and Houston County was left with just its 1973 ordinance that includes very little regulatory language.

Commissioner Dana Kjome declined to discuss Scanlan's departure Wednesday, on advice from Arrick-Kruger, who told the county board Tuesday that a search for Scanlan's replacement would begin immediately. However, she warned that the position may require two people due to the complexity of the "mining compliance and documentation" issues.

One example of the complex issue came last month when the Minnesota Court of Appeals overruled the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on the Erickson mine in Houston County, allowing the controversial mine to resume operation. The local opposition group filed a complaint earlier this month alleging that multiple county officials "have been complicit in misrepresenting the facts and covering up wrong doing."

In the HCP's latest move, it filed an ordinance amendment proposal Tuesday with county officials again seeking a total ban of all operations related to silica sand. The language was accepted by the board and is expected to be discussed at an upcoming planning commission meeting before coming back to the county board for consideration.

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An exact timeline is unclear, but Tschumper said the language was taken directly from the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board and adapted to Houston County over the past six months to "minimize the impact on existing mining, which supplies local farms and businesses with sand and gravel."

While Walter feels government is supposed to "regulate and restrict" rather than ban, Tschumper said the county currently has 120 to 140 active mines, most of which won't be impacted by the proposed language.

"It is an effort by members of Houston County Protectors to find common ground with the mining community on how to deal with frac sand mining, specifically, and mining extraction in general," Tschumper said. "If these changes are approved, every resident will benefit and every current mine operator will be better off also."

Related Topics: MINING
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