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Crowd gathers to hear Winona's proposed frac sand ban

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About 200 people gathered for a Winona County Planning Commission public hearing on a proposed ban on frac sand mining Thursday.
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WINONA — About 200 people packed the rotunda of the Tau Center on the West Campus at Winona State University to answer Margaret Lambert's question: "To ban, or not to ban?"

Lambert, a Winona resident, was one 74 people to address the Winona County Planning Commission as it opened its public hearing Thursday on a proposed ban on silica sand mining for the industrial purpose of hydraulic fracturing. Of the 74 individuals who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, 15 opposed the ban and 59 supported the ban.

As for Lambert, she answered her own question by asking the commission where the funds for a mining expert to write regulations would come from and how much it would cost, and where the funds for enforcement of any regulations would come from and how much it might cost. "Who will pay for damage to the environment?" she asked.

The night started with the planning commission explaining the meeting's process to the crowd, and laying down the rules. Speakers would be taken in the order they signed up to speak. Each speaker would be allotted two minutes, at which time they must stop speaking. The comments would go until 9:55 p.m., nearly three hours after the meeting was opened.

The commission has a 60-day review process during which it will hear public comments and take written comments on the proposed ban before making a recommendation to the Winona County Board of Commissioners in August.

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The first comment from the public Thursday night came from Mark Clark of Rollingstone Township. "Winona was settled many years ago by people who used natural resources," Clark said, enumerating resources including soil, water, limestone, "and, yes, sand."

Clark questioned the narrow focus of banning silica sand for fracking when it would not be banned for its many other uses including roads or cattle bedding.

"What's next?" he asked. "You can use corn for ethanol or cattle feed but not corn syrup? You're discriminating against a natural resource. Let the market decide what's the best use of the natural resources."

The only person to break the two-minute rule of speaking was Sr. Rosemary Quinn, a Catholic nun who described Winona County as a piece of heaven. The sister, who wore a breathing apparatus, told the commission,

"This is my condition, but it's not without its purpose if you think about it," she said, warning the commission of the perceived health hazards such as silicosis that accompany silica mining. "We all run the risk."

Reasons to support the ban ran a broad spectrum. From the costs of enforcing regulations to the damage caused, both financial and ecological. Some brought up the trustworthiness of the mining industry.

Barb Nelson, of Warren Township, said a neighbor's property was drilled repeatedly looking for silica sand. Once done, the drilling company did not return the land to its previous condition.

"It doesn't take long for me to see I'm coming out on the short end of the stick," Nelson said.

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While many of those opposed to the ban talked about the right to use and utilize their property as they saw fit, Kent Cowgill, who came from neighboring Houston County where he owns more than 100 acres, said a pair of before and after photos of a mine in Wisconsin turned his ambivalence on the subject to support of a ban.

"My concern isn't what I can do with my land, but what my neighbors can do with theirs," he said.

For Erica Thibodeaux, who grew up in Louisiana and saw how the land there was affected by the oil and gas industry, the benefits to the economy seemed minimal compared to the damage to the environment.

"The people who will benefit from this are very few," she said. "The benefits of the ban far outweigh the mediocre financial benefits that so few people will gain."

But Dan Nisbit, who co-owns C D Corporation, a trucking firm that hauls silica sand, said his company has generated 30-40 jobs, and it pays for the roads its trucks use with a diesel tax. "I'm concerned about legality of what's being proposed, singling out one use of a commodity," he said. "I just ask you to look at things in a common sense basis."

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