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Frac-sand mining opponents target Winona senator

ST. PAUL — Opponents of frac-sand mining angrily confronted a Winona senator on Tuesday for his vote against restrictions on mining near trout streams.

About 50 people traveled by bus from Winona to the Capitol to urge Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, to back a proposal to prohibit silica sand mining within a mile of trout streams, springs and fens in southeastern Minnesota.

Lewiston resident Barb Nelson said it's time for Miller to get behind the trout stream setbacks.

"How could he not have heard us? We've been making a lot of noise," Nelson said. "Sen. Miller, get your head out of the sand."

The group delivered an oversized postcard to Miller that called on him "to start putting the well-being of the citizens of your district above frac sand special interests."


They waved pictures of trout on a stick and sported "no frac" stickers.

Miller cast the deciding vote in a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week against inserting the setback language into the Senate's game and fish bill. Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, is vowing to continue his fight to put the language back in his game and fish bill. He plans to offer an amendment to the bill on the House floor.

Silica sand mining is used in the process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" used to tap into natural gas wells within shale formations.

During a brief and heated meeting, mining opponents accused Miller of not listening to his constituents and "taking the easy way out." Miller responded by asking why it should not be left up for local governments to decide where mining can occur.

At one point, Senate Minority Leader David Hann intervened to break up the discussion, saying he had a meeting scheduled with Miller.

During an interview after the meeting, Miller said it's clear that the group does not want to see any silica sand mining in Minnesota. He said it should be up to local governments to determine where mining is appropriate. He added that he also supports legislation that would create a technical assistance team to assist local governments in making those decisions.

"I stand by my original decision, because I'm hesitant to support a one-size-fits-all approach, but I remain committed to working with our local governments to get this right," he said.

The bus trip was organized by the Land Stewardship Project, which has been a leading force in the effort to halt silica sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. This last lobbying push comes as efforts to pass the trout stream setback are struggling. Republican and Iron Range Democrats friendly to mining have teamed up to block the measure. Industry groups have argued the water provisions would end up being a de facto moratorium on silica sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. A map produced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources shows that large swaths of southeastern Minnesota would be off-limits to silica sand mining under Schmit's proposal.


The tougher regulations do have the backing of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who joined mining opponents at a Capitol press conference. Minnesota Trout Unlimited also backs the proposal. Meanwhile, Houston County Commissioners said during a meeting Tuesday they support Schmit's proposal.

Among those making the trek to St. Paul on Tuesday was Hay Creek Valley Campground owner Pat O'Neill. His family has owned the campground in Goodhue County for more than 35 years. It draws more than 500 people on weekends, many of them eager to fish for trout in the creek. The campground is less than one mile from a proposed silica sand mine.

"If that mine were to invade this very fragile area, it would most certainly destroy and deplete everything that Mother Nature offers to this valley and therefore destroy our family business as well as many jobs we provide to local residents," he said.

Opponents also met with Schmit, giving him a standing ovation and plenty of cheers for his efforts to pass the trout stream language. The Red Wing Democrat said he remains optimistic the mining restrictions can pass.

"I would just encourage folks to continue to contact legislators, contact the governor's office," he said. "Let them know this is important. It's based upon sound science. This is a specific standard that we need to put in place this session."

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