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Silica sand concerns remain prominent in SE Minnesota

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RED WING — After Monday's fiery city council meeting that saw one critic of Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan escorted out by police officers, things have proceeded at a more deliberate pace in determining how to address concerns surrounding Egan's possible conflict of interest.

Jay Squires, Red Wing's legal counsel, has identified an investigative firm that could examine Egan's dealings with the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. Egan, a professional lobbyist, agreed to become the organization's executive director in January, roughly three months after signing a new ordinance that essentially bans silica sand mining within the city.

City Hall was packed Monday with citizens worried about a conflict of interest, and three council members asked Egan to consider either stepping down as mayor or to resigning his post with the mining organization that represents six companies with interests in silica sand operations. Egan refused, and says he doesn't have any conflicts.

That prompted three actions that will proceed concurrently.

"Any time you have an issue of potential conflict of a city issue, you're always going to have public interest — and the frac sand issue is already so emotional," Red Wing council president Lisa Bayley said.

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The city council unanimously moved to hire an independent firm to investigate Egan's situation for a conflict of interest. City officials will meet Tuesday with an unnamed metro firm recommended by Squires, Bayley said.

It's uncertain what the task will cost, but Bayley says it won't have to come back before the council for additional approval based on Monday's decision.

The city is also in the process of drafting a letter to the Minnesota Attorney General's office to seek another legal opinion on Egan's potential conflict of interest. Squires said Monday that Egan has no legal conflicts, but many expressed concerns over ethical issues. The letter is expected to be sent next week, Bayley said, though it remains unclear when a response would be received.

Additionally, a Red Wing citizen promised Monday night to file a petition to recall Egan, who was elected in a 2011 special election and overwhelmingly re-elected in 2012. Dale Hanson said Friday that he's "in no particular hurry" to file the petition, though he has been in "regular" contact with a lawyer.

A recall petition to be registered with the city requires signatures from five registered voters to be filed with the city and support from at least 20 percent of the registered voters — or roughly 2,000 signatures, in this case — to be successful.

Red Wing officials also voted unanimously to send a resolution of support to the Minnesota Legislature asking for a moratorium of silica sand facilities and for the state to conduct a generic environmental impact statement, which could delay local projects for years.

Demand for silica sand has increased in recent years as domestic gas and oil production has jumped, with southeastern Minnesota becoming a hot spot for mining companies. Proposals have been made up and down the Mississippi River based on the size, shape and hardness of the sand, but vocal resistance has also become organized. The current hot spots include Wabasha, Winona and St. Charles.

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