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Mining restrictions near trout streams face upstream battle

ST. PAUL — Despite a series of political defeats, a Red Wing lawmaker vows to keep fighting for legislation to protect trout streams from silica sand mining.

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said he will keep pushing to prohibit silica sand mining within a mile of trout streams, springs and fens in southeastern Minnesota.

"Hopefully, people realize that we are not asking for the world here. All we're asking for is to be proactive and to give our agencies the tools they need to do their job and give our local decision makers the assurance that we are getting this right," he said.

But the first-term senator faces a tough fight. Republicans and Iron Range Democrats have teamed up to defeat the proposal. Last week, the measure was stripped out of the Senate's game and fish bill. On Tuesday, an attempt by Schmit put the regulations back into the bill failed by one vote in the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, was among those voting against the trout stream language. He said he wants to protect trout streams but believes other legislation will address the issue by helping set model standards and making agency experts available to help local governments. Local officials he talked to said Schmit's proposal goes too far and would amount to a de facto moratorium on mining in Fillmore and Houston counties.

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"That would eliminate just about any opportunity for industrial sand mining in those two counties," he said.

Southeastern Minnesota is in the midst of a silica sand boom thanks to high demand for the fine sand used in the process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." The technique involves pumping sand, water and chemicals into oil and natural gas wells within shale formations. The high-pressure mixture creates fractures in the rock, releasing the oil and gas trapped inside.

Some lawmakers warn that if Schmit pushes too hard for the trout stream setback, it could jeopardize other legislation aimed at helping local governments get the help of state experts in setting local mining standards.

"We can push all we want, but we are going to start looking like extremists," said Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing. "The more we disrupt things, the less chance we have of passing something that gets us what we want."

Schmit has found a friend in the governor's office. Gov. Mark Dayton's spokeswoman, Katharine Tinucci, said Wednesday that the governor strongly supports the trout stream protections and will urge lawmakers to get behind Schmit's proposal. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commission Tom Landwehr also backs the idea, urging senators during Tuesday's hearing to institute the trout stream buffer. He said southeastern Minnesota's Karst geology is fragile, and the department has seen the damage silica sand mining can do to a trout stream.

"It is much cheaper to prevent problems than to fix problems. We have tended to undervalue our resources," he said.

Minnesota Trout Unlimited is also pushing hard for the restrictions. The group's executive director, John Lenczewski, told lawmakers that silica sand mining has the potential to permanently damage southeastern Minnesota's trout streams, which are a major tourism attraction for the state.

But Industrial Sand Council lobbyist Peder Larson said Schmit's provisions would amount to a moratorium on mining in southeastern Minnesota. And, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Tony Kwilas said the provision would treat this type of mining unfairly.

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"It appears we have kind of singled out one industry that has been here for 100 years in this state," he said during Tuesday's hearing.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, has also fought against the setback. He fears that it could lead to similar restrictions on mining in his district in northern Minnesota.

With time running out in the session, Schmit said he will probably offer an amendment on the Senate floor in hopes of winning support for the trout stream protections.

"I will continue to push ahead for this," he said. "It's not over."

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