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Frac sand regulation option heads to Winona County Board

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Silica sand at the Nisbit mine near Utica in Winona County.
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WINONA — When the Winona County Board of Commissioners meets Tuesday night, there will be a new proposal concerning silica sand mining to add to the mix.

Commissioner Steve Jacob proposed an amendment to the current regulations on silica sand mining during a planning commission meeting on Aug. 11. That amendment — a compromise between an outright ban and the status quo — was approved by the commission on a 5-3 vote. It now will be forwarded as a recommendation to the county board.

Jacob's proposal would limit the number of industrial mineral mines to six, with no mine exceeding 40 acres. "It puts no limits on construction minerals," Jacob said. "It covers industrial minerals that could be used for such things as frac sand mining."

The proposal borrows from the definitions of industrial mining versus construction mining that are part of the ban proposal the county has been running through the approval process. A 60-day comment period on the ban ended on Aug. 1. Next up is Tuesday's board meeting, where the proposal will be discussed along with setting the date for a future public hearing on the proposed ban.

"I've knocked on two-thirds to three-fourths of the doors in St. Charles," he said, adding St. Charles likely will be affected more than other areas of the county because of the sand deposits in the area. "In knocking on those doors, I found roughly 25 percent want a ban, 25 percent don't want a ban, and 50 percent of the people feel the issue is damaging the community, and the community needs to be healed."

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Jacob said his compromise is aimed to do that. With the county board being split, it is likely the issue will come up again in six months or two years down the road.

"A future county board will undo the ban, and we'll be fighting over the issue," he said. "The best thing to heal the community is to find a place we'll find common ground."

However, planning commission member Chris Meyer said the problem with Jacob's compromise is it misses so much of what is at issue when it comes to frac sand mining in Winona County.

"The first thing is that the proposal that was originally brought to the planning commission addressed processing, mining and transportation," she said. "His amendment addressed just one of those three concerns."

Meyer, who was one of the dissenting votes against the compromise, said she has spent probably 80 hours listening to testimony and reading reports on the issue. One such report — a 200-page tome on frac sand mining in Trempealeau County, Wis. — came to the conclusion that regulating mining would be fine, as long as you can regulate the many public safety and community concerns effectively.

Winona County, with its limited financial resources, would have trouble effectively monitoring water and air quality, light pollution among neighbors, noise, blasting, property values and other issues.

"In terms of water quality, they recommended quarterly monitoring at the sites and yearly monitoring within one mile," Meyer said. "None of that stuff is addressed in any way by that amendment. So it seems like a really big gap to me."

Another example from Trempealeau County, she said, came from the town of Blair, Wis., where a silica sand operation was looking to expand during a temporary moratorium on new mining. The company convinced the city to annex 499 acres from the township to avoid the county's moratorium, promising the town jobs and an increase in property taxes. However, the change meant less in state funding for the local schools.

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"I don't see how this compromise would save Winona County from those kinds of maneuvers," Meyer said. "It would be quite burdensome to regulate and keep people safe."

For Johanna Rupprecht, a policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, an environmental policy organization that supports the ban on frac sand mining in Winona County, the bigger problem is that Jacob's compromise does nothing to address the public's desire for a ban.

"Nobody was asking for a compromise," Rupprecht said. "I think that message is already being sent loud and clear."

Meyer said the public comments she has heard have gone nearly four to one in favor of a ban. And written comments are favoring a ban at eight to one. One of her own concerns is the volume of sand -- not to mention the associated transportation and processing -- that comes with mining sand for fracking.

"Even at 40 acres, that's 250-300 truckloads of sand out of there a day," Rupprecht said. "It's not protecting the public from the intensity of frac mining. It's kind of a half-baked idea."

While the mining industry could bring as many as 300 jobs to the county -- if Winona County had the number of mines as the highly mined Trempealeau County -- that's not where Meyer said she sees Winona County's greatest need. "All of Southeast Minnesota, but Winona County particularly, we're facing a workforce shortage," Meyer said. "An industry that potentially degrades quality of life and the environment isn't going to attract people to move here."

Still, Jacob said he believes the county board will listen carefully to his compromise between a ban and current regulations. "If we were still looking just at the unmodified ban, I think there's a possibility (the county board members') minds were made up," he said. "This is significantly different than what was on the table before the ban process."

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