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Wabasha County silica ordinance might be adjusted

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Suzanne Rohlfing of Rochester, an owner of a tree farm near Zumbro Falls, calls on the Wabasha County Planning Commission to help slow down the rush to mine silica sand through changes to the county zoning ordinance. She was one of about 10 people who spoke.
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WABASHA — Wabasha County's proposed update and expansion of its ordinance about mining, moving and processing non-metallic minerals, including silica sand, got mostly minor suggestions for improvements, but no calls for sweeping changes, at Wednesday's public hearing.

About 10 people who spoke were generally in favor of it and some complimented the planning commission for all its work. But each also offered a suggestion or two to make it more precise or add something.

The county began looking at the changes when it realized it had some problems with mining in its zoning for all kinds of mines, said Commission Chairman John Mortenson. As it happens, the silica sand issue also exploded around the same time. The county imposed a moratorium, which ends in August, so it had more time to examine that issue.

Silica sand, which is found in huge amounts in the blufflands of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, is mixed with water and chemicals and injected deep underground to fracture rocks holding natural gas and oil. They also keep open the fractures so the energy can be pumped out.

But the sand mining has generated a lot of controversy because of the disruption and noise from trucks hauling sand, possible pollution of surface and ground water and reports of health problems caused by microscopic pieces of silica.

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Dean Flugstad of rural Lake City said the ordinance is better than what the county has now but "I do not feel it's strong enough."

Some Wisconsin ordinances force mining companies to pay for damage to wells within a half mile away and guarantee that if property values drop, the company has to make up the difference, he said.

Greg Schreck, representing the Lake City Tourism Bureau, said he wanted more specifics.

Mortenson, however, said "this is written in a broad scope" to handle many sides of the issue. Individual problems with a site are addressed through the conditional use permit process.

Katie Himanga, a forester from Lake City who works with writing ordinances, said she's worried about parts of the ordinance that say companies have to do something "to the extent practicable." She stated "it's a red flag for me" when she read it because courts in other states have found it to be too vague.

The ordinance doesn't limit the acres of mines that can be operated at one time. "That goes to the issue of cumulative impact," she said.

Suzanne Rohlfing of Rochester, an owner of a tree farm near Zumbro Falls, worries about water pollution and overuse of water. With the drought, more people are seeking to use water. It's time to slow down and look at a more comprehensive plan, she said.

Mortenson said water issues are dealt with by the state so there's no need for the county to put them in its ordinance.

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Dr. Dale Rohlfing called on the commission to be leaders and call a halt to silica sand mining because it contributes to more drilling for fossil fuels. The nation should be moving away from that, he said.

But Mortenson said that's not the issue with the ordinance.

Beau Kennedy, a member of the Mazeppa Township Board, called on the commission to not make it too difficult to mine aggregate used on local roads. The more that costs, the more the townships have to pay, he said. "We have to pinch pennies," he said.

Also, aesthetics are important and he favors banning mining within 300 feet of the toe or face of bluffs because it's unsightly and could lead to erosion.

Once the commission took the testimony, it closed the public comment period. But it will meet again Feb. 25 to talk about some of the things people wanted changed, such as compensating for lower property values.

Once the commission approves the changes, the county board will hold a hearing; it also has to approve the changes or additions to the ordinance.

Wabasha County crafts ordinances for silica sand quarries

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