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Silica sand bill passes first legislative test

Sen. Matt Schmit, a democrat from Red Wing, accepts congratulations from those who want more oversight of the growing silica-sand mining industry. Schmit's bill calling for a moratorium and generic environmental impact statement passed its first committee vote on Tuesday at the State Capitol in St. Paul.

ST. PAUL — After seeing his bill to regulate study silica sand mining pass its first legislative test on Tuesday, Sen. Matt Schmit was surrounded by well wishers who encouraged him to keep fighting.

But Schmit, a Red Wing Democrat, was more cautious. There are many more hurdles to go overcome, he said, and the bill is going to be tweaked and changed along the way.

On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee passed it 8-4.

Schmit's bill would place a moratorium on new or expanded silica-sand mines in the state, require the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board to complete a generic impact statement on the effects of silica sand mining by May 1, 2014, and form a joint powers board of state agencies and local units of government to work together to create a model ordinance.

The freshman senator said that when he campaigned last fall, he heard many people complain that the silica-sand industry was coming in fast and they didn't think enough was known abouts its effect on noise, traffic, air and water quality issues. "This is something local leaders were asking for," he said.


His aim isn't more bureaucracy but "better regulations, smarter regulations," he said.

Another impetus for the bill was seeing the silica-sand industry in Wisconsin take off so fast that local governments couldn't keep ahead of it, Schmit said.

Wisconsin is rich in silica sand, which is used by the energy industry to fracture underground rock and release trapped oil and natural gas. Minnesota also has large amounts of the sand, which is prized for being round, the right size and very dense.

Schmit says his bill will give the state a chance to find answers before townships, cities and counties are under even more pressure to permit mines and processing plants, he said.

"We've got to make sure we get it right," he said several times during the hearing.

In addition to winning support from a local government official, local conservation groups and some fellow senators, Schmit also saw where the opposition will come from.

Several groups representing the silica sand and aggregate industries, labor and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce testified against the bill, saying the state has had more than a century of experience with mines and has enough regulations. They said the Legislature should spend money bolstering state agencies to better enforce existing rules instead of instituting a moratorium.

Silica sand can help make the U.S. less dependent on foreign energy, said Sen. Julie Rosen, a Fairmont Republican.


"We are missing this opportunity for this energy revolution," she said.

Silica sand mining is just a part of agriculture, and people should expect some noise and dust, she said. That remark drew murmurs of dissent from bill backers.

The state already does a good job of protecting the environment, Rosen said.

"We have to be very careful about what we're doing here," she said. The bill sends out "huge signals" to industry that Minnesota isn't ready for them, she said.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said that mining silica is capital intensive, and that Schmit's bill could drive away that investment, along with its jobs.

But Schmit said the region is "sitting on the best silica sand in the world" and it will still be there when the study is done.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Hastings, said the moratorium will give local governments a chance to get rid of a patchwork of rules.

Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound objected to forcing every unit of government to be part of the moratorium and offered an amendment that would let a local government body opt out. That failed.


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Jody McIlrath testifies at silica sand hearing.

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