Frac-sand mining still contentious in Houston County
Houston County has been quiet the past few weeks.
At least in comparison with the previous few weeks, when it was the site of tumultuous meetings in which protesters against frac-sand mining were escorted out, accusations were thrown against commissioners and three new complaints were filed against Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan.
The core of controversy, however, still simmers.
The county, like Fillmore, Winona, Wabasha and Goodhue counties, has been struggling with what to do about allowing mines for silica sand used in fracking.
All the counties in the blufflands have had mines for more than a century, but they were used mostly for getting gravel for roads or construction. Also, most were only used as the rock was needed for nearby projects or to get silica sand for cattle bedding. Quarrying was necessary part of the local economy.
Then companies drilling for oil or gas worldwide discovered fracking. It's a process in which water, chemicals and certain kinds of silica sand are injected into rock deep underground to fracture it and release oil and gas.
The blufflands of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota have some of the best sand because of its shape and hardness. Wisconsin got into the mining business first and it has scores of large mines, processing plants and transportation. But it also has had problems with hundreds of trucks coming and going daily, and questions about water or air pollution.
Ban, or regulate mines?
Minnesota counties look at Wisconsin and say they don't want that here. But the question for many is, how can they ban it, or should they regulate it?
That is one of the questions before Houston County, in the southeastern corner of the state.
Many want an outright ban but others say there are questions about whether a ban would be legal and whether it would violate landowner rights.
The county had a three-year moratorium on opening any new frac-sand mines but that expired about a month ago. During the three years, the county tried to write a new ordinance to address the new realities of fracking.
The new one, however, was controversial.
About a month ago, the Houston County Board unanimously passed a non-binding resolution supporting what opponents thought was a ban. But when the real vote came, it was 3-2 against a ban. A vote to approve the new ordinance was also 3-2 in favor, but such a change requires at least four votes. So the county is now governed by the old ordinance.
Opponents were outraged at what they thought was the duplicity of the board and were very vocal. Some were so loud that a county deputy escorted them out of meetings.
Three new complaints
Opponents also feel they've been treated unfairly by Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan.
Scanlan was suspended for five days last year (two days were dropped if he completed some actions) because a long investigation found he had retaliated against frac-sand opponents by trying to use zoning rules against them, shared confidential information with others and gave special treatment by advocating in behalf of others.
Now opponents have filed new three new ethics complaints against Scanlan with the county's Human Resources Department.
• Bryan and Sue Van Gorp and Cory and Jackie Baker contend that Scanlan has undue influence over the permitting of the Tracie Erickson mine near Rushford. "He misrepresented the facts of the case at various levels of government," they claim.
• Ken Tschumper contends that Scanlan was active in writing the mining ordinance that didn't pass while owning a non-conforming shale mine. He could gain financially from the ordinance, so he should have disqualified himself, Tschumper contends.
• Bruce Kuehmichel contends that Scanlan was derelict in his duties by not administering county ordinances that require reclamation plans and bonds. "The absence of a bond puts the county at great financial liability to assume the burden of reclaiming an abandoned mine," Kuehmichel said.
Scanlan "ought to be fired," Tschumper said.
Theressa Arrick-Kruger, the county's human resources director, said this week that the three complaints are "in the initial stage" of investigation but they "have not been dismissed." The county has not decided whether she will investigate or have the county again hire outside counsel.
Existing mines need plans
Bryan Van Gorp, is a leader of Houston County Protectors, a group opposing the mines. Besides opposing proposed new frac-sand mines, the protectors are also looking into the more than 100 mines already open or permitted in the county, because they contend that many don't have specific plans for reclaiming them after they close or don't have bonds.
"We can't even get accurate information" about those, Van Gorp said.
He said the present zoning ordinance that includes language does contain language about bonds and reclaiming abandoned mines. If they were enforced, "a whole bunch of stuff hits the fan," Van Gorp said.
Finally, he said his group is going to try to get county commissioners Steve Schuldt and Judy Storlie, who didn't vote for a ban, voted off the board in fall, 2016 and there could be legal challenges, he said.
Storlie, who has become a spokeswoman for the board and Scanlan, said she isn't sure where the issue is going to go. "I think it will probably need to go back to planning and zoning" that had a study commission. But with the divided board, "it's kind of hard to tell."
She is hoping that common ground can be found. "I really feel that the way to go is to regulate it," she said. So far, no one on has applied for a permit to open a frac-sand mine.
"We just need to settle down" and get some work done.
Storlie and Schuldt have publicly said they don't like the idea of big frac-sand mines in the county but also don't know about a complete ban.
While Scanlan hasn't spoken about the complaints, he has in the past said the ordinance that is now in place is good and has worked well.
Reclaiming the land after mines closed "has never been a high priority for the county board," Scanlan said. And the county doesn't have the staff to do that kind of work, he said.
Houston has 131 mines and from what he can tell, about 45 have been used in the past. "And some of them have never been opened," he said. Some in in crop fields or in the middle of swamps.