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Year in Review: Frac sand the big story in Houston County

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Michael Fields, an opponent of silica sand mining in Houston County, speaks during a county board meeting, asking that the board rescind a permit for the Tracie Erickson to mine near Rushford.
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CALEDONIA — While there are no silica sand mines in Houston County, the possibility that one might open led to big headlines in 2014.

Houston County Auditor Char Meiners, who also is the Houston County Board of Commissioner's secretary, said frac-sand mining has taken up a lot of the board's time.

"Frac-sand has been huge, there has been a lot of controversy about that," she said.

The blufflands of southwestern Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota are rich in silica sand, often found close to the surface. The sand is the right size and hardness needed for hydraulic fracturing, in which sand, water and chemicals are injected under pressure to open small fractures in rock deep beneath the surface, releasing oil and natural gas.

Wisconsin has the most and largest silica sand mines of the region, in part, because the sand is close to the surface and because it has the railroad lines needed to move the sand to drilling sites out west.

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Southeastern Minnesota has fewer and smaller mines, and Houston County has none, said Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan.

But the county is looking to update its mining ordinance, generating a lot of comment by those opposed to frac-sand mining. One such operator tried to establish a mine, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said the company has to obtain a permit because the proposed site is too close to a trout stream.

That issue over the Tracie Erickson mine, a few miles east of Rushford, which the county board approved, led to a lot of testimony at one county board meeting. Opponents called on the board to not try to defend the county's issuing a permit for it.

Though the county maintains Erickson can open the mine, he has not done so because of the DNR letter, Scanlan said.

The next big story on fracking will be the proposed updating of the zoning ordinance, he said. That is expected to be ready early next year.

Opponents look at the big mines in Wisconsin and fear the same thing will happen in Houston County, Scanlon said.

But experts have told him that Houston County is not ripe for big mines because its sand isn't as good as that in other places; also, the sand is deeper under bedrock and there are no convenient railroads nor river ports in the county.

"It's just not going to be cost-effective," he said.

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The proposed ordinance would limit any fracking mines to 60,000 cubic yards per year, which translates into about 15 trucks a year, Scanlon said. "I really don't see it as a big deal." The ordinance would allow mines up to 175,000 cubic yards of aggregate material per year.

Members of the anti-mining activist group Houston County Protectors, however, were critical of the county board for creating an ordinance focused on regulating frac-sand mining rather than drafting an ordinance that bans the practice altogether.

Spokesman Bruce Kuehmichel said county residents presented the board with a 450-signature petition in favor of an outright ban. The group is concerned about potential health hazards from airborne silica sand particulate, as well as the impact the mines may have on groundwater, the increased truck traffic around mining sites and the potential decrease of property values near the operations.

"We want to protect the land, air, water and property values," Kuehmichel said. "And the only way to do that is to insist that the ordinance be redrafted."

The statewide moratorium on new mines ends in early March and the county wants to have its ordinance in place at the time, Meiners said. Information about fracking and the ordinance can be found on the county's website, http://www.co.houston.mn.us/Frac_Sand.aspx.

In other big stories

• Two-term Sheriff Doug Ely was one of four sitting sheriffs in the area tossed out of office by voters in November. Ely was defeated by State Patrol Trooper Mark Inglett by a vote of 4,847 to 2,894.

• A former jailer at the Houston County jail pleaded not guilty to two felonies after being accused of having sex with a female inmate. Bruce Hugo Muenkel, 62, of Caledonia, faces one count each of third-degree and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct by a correctional employee.

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• In Houston, a storefront for the International Owl Center is ready to open. It is the first big move for the idea, hatched several years ago by Karla Bloem, who is an expert on owls.

Related Topics: MINING
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