Our View: State must take lead on frac sand study
Like sands through the hourglass, the clock is ticking inevitably toward a full-scale, state-ordered study into the effects of frac-sand mining upon Minnesota's roads, groundwater, landscape, air quality and the health of those who live near the mines or along transportation routes. That's our conclusion after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Health each sent letters to the Winona County Board requesting the county order a full Environmental Impact Statement concerning two proposed frac-sand mines.
The two sites in Saratoga Township — called the Yoder and Dabelstein mines — already have completed Environment Assessment Worksheets, which are far less rigorous (and less expensive) than an EIS, which could take two years to complete. Public comment has just opened on a third mine in Saratoga Township, the Nisbit site, which is a few miles south of the other two.
This is the first time these state agencies have requested an EIS for a frac-sand mine, and the stakes are high. The Minnesota side of the Mississippi River has some of the nation's richest deposits of frac sand, which is a crucial raw material in the nation's booming oil and gas industry. Estimates from the mining and energy industries project that employment related to sand mining in Minnesota could grow from its current level of 19,000 to more than 40,000 by 2035 — more than 1 percent of the state's total workforce.
So it's safe to say Winona County's decision about whether to order the EIS (a vote could come as early as March 5) will reverberate from Winona up through Red Wing. Requiring a full EIS can effectively kill a proposal, as investors often choose to seek sites with lower start-up costs and a faster timeline and return on investment.
But before all eyes focus on Winona County, they'll focus on St. Paul. The Legislature is scheduled to begin holding hearings related to frac sand on Feb. 19, and it's possible that, by the session's end, the state will have ordered a Generic Environmental Impact Statement on frac-sand mining.
That would be the wisest course of action. Granted, such an order would tap the brakes on frac-sand mining in Minnesota for a year or two, but the alternative is likely to be an endless series of localized legal battles about individual mines. Such squabbles would consume a lot of time and money while doing little to further our knowledge about whether airborne silica dust poses a health threat to people who live near sand mines, processing plants or roads where the sand is hauled.
Furthermore, we need to remember Minnesota's streams and aquifers don't honor the borders between townships and counties. A supposedly "localized" problem caused by a sand mine could trickle down into a lot of wells.
With so much at stake, the state can't afford to stay on the sidelines while local governments struggle to write their own rules. A General Environmental Impact Statement on frac-sand mining will fill in a lot of the knowledge gaps for cities, counties and townships, thus, allowing them to make fully informed decisions that — we hope — will protect our environment while allowing the safe extraction and transport of this valuable resource.