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State lawmakers push for study on silica sand mining

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ST. PAUL — The state Capitol is the latest front in the battle over silica-sand mining in southeastern Minnesota as domestic oil and gas production increases have boosted demand for the sand.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said he will push for a more extensive review of the potential effect of silica-sand mining. Specifically, he backs the idea of a statewide Generic Environmental Impact Statement and a temporary moratorium while the study is completed.

"We have a lot of questions out there without any real valid answers," Kelly said.

Southeastern Minnesota is at the forefront of a silica-sand mining boom. The fine sand is a key ingredient in the process of hydraulic fracturing of "fracking." The new 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.

Several southeastern Minnesota counties have passed temporary moratoriums on silica-sand mining as officials weigh the potential effects, including heavy truck traffic and the threat of lung disease from airborne crystalline silica. Environmental groups have been calling on DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to support a statewide mining moratorium. Defenders of the industry maintain the state already has tough regulations to protect its citizens, and the mining will create much-needed jobs.

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It's clear silica-sand mining has the attention of the state's political leaders. During a legislative preview session in December, the governor predicted the silica-sand mining issue was going to be "huge." At that point, he said he had not decided whether to issue a statewide moratorium. But he said he was assured by state agencies that oversee mining that there was time for state lawmakers to grapple with the issue.

"I don't want it to be like the feedlots, where the industry got ahead of us and state and local governments, and there were a lot of problems as a result," Dayton said.

Addressing concerns

Newly elected Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said he plans to author legislation aimed at addressing some of the concerns, but he still is hammering out the details.

"I have been reaching out to stakeholders throughout southeastern Minnesota for the last couple of months. We want to be thoughtful," he said.

Schmit added he has concerns a Statewide Generic Environmental Impact Statement could end up taking a long time, delaying local governments from getting the information they need to make smart decisions. Another option would be to order a more targeted study with a shorter time frame.

"We've just got to make sure we give our folks at the local level what they need to make good decisions," he said.

Not all local lawmakers are on board with the idea of a statewide study or increased regulation of silica-sand mining.

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"This would be additional, unnecessary state government that would add to the cost of doing business in Minnesota," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. He added local policymakers already are able to get the information they need from state agencies to make decisions.

"Let's allow that to work properly as it has been working and allow the jobs this is going to create in our state," he said.

Wind comparisons

Kelly disagrees. He compares what is going on with silica-sand mining to the push to build wind farms in more populated areas, such as Goodhue County, leading to intense opposition among some landowners.

It makes more sense to study fully the effect this mining would have on Minnesota's bluff country before moving ahead, he said.

"If we've learned anything from the wind issue, we didn't do that, so we had all the battles going back and forth, and lawyers were involved because we didn't take our time and do it right," Kelly said. "I just think there is no reason to rush into it."

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