County board approves one year moratorium on frac sand mining

By Charlie Warner
Argus News Editor

By a unanimous vote, the Houston County Board approved a motion to call for a one-year moratorium on silica frac sand mining in the county.

A motion made by Commissioner Teresa Walter and seconded by Commissioner Justin Zmyewski was approved 3-0 during the Feb. 28 board meeting.

Commissioner Steve Schuldt also supported the motion. Commissioner Tom Bjerke was absent from the meeting. Board Chairman Jack Miller said he supported the moratorium, but only votes in the event of a tie.

Conflict of interest

The vote came at the end of Tuesday morning’s meeting, which included County Attorney Jamie Hammell’s announcement that there was a potential conflict of interest on her part. She told the board her husband, Jed Hammell, who is a partner in the Rippe Hammell & Murphy Law Firm, has been doing work for companies involved with frac sand mining operations in Winona and Fillmore counties.

A group of about 300 county residents, known as “Houston County Protectors,” had been disseminating a handout that questioned the possible conflict of interest. It stated that a Fillmore County publication had identified Jed Hammell in a Nov. 16, 2011 issue, as representing parties in their promotion of frac sand mining.

“I want the process to run as smoothly as possible. I don’t want it to be clouded,” Hammell said during her request to have the Olmsted County Attorney’s Office take over all of the county’s legal dealings with the frac sand mining issues.

Olmsted County will handle it

Hammell went on to state that she has contacted Senior Assistant Olmsted County Attorney Tom Cannon about taking over all frac sand mining issues for Houston County and he has consented to do so. She added that there won’t be any additional costs involved, as it is a common practice for county attorney offices to take over cases when conflict of interest issues arise.

A motion by Walter and seconded by Zmyewski to approve Hammell’s request was unanimously approved.

The previous week Hammell had cautioned the board not to rush into passing the moratorium until all of the legal ramifications could be studied.

“I feel the general consensus of the board is to support a moratorium so we can make sure all of the information about this new industry is obtained and the proper ordinances and regulations are in place,” Miller said. “But we need to find out if we can legally do this without holding another public hearing.

Zmyewski said it was his understanding that because it was an interim zoning ordinance, the board could move forward with it.

Walter felt they should get in touch with Cannon to obtain a recommendation, one way or the other.

“If he feels we need a second public hearing (the Houston County Planning & Zoning Board held a public hearing on Feb. 13) then let’s hold it. If we don’t need one, I think we need to move forward with the moratorium,” Walter said.

Miller asked Hammell if she could contact Cannon and get back to the board before the end of the meeting.

Hammell said she would attempt to contact Cannon immediately and added that now that she wasn’t providing legal counselling on this issue anymore, she wanted to tell the board that she was very much in favor of the county calling for a moratorium so that more information could be obtained.

Second hearing not required

Towards the end of the Feb. 28 board meeting, Hammell forwarded an email from Cannon that indicated that the county was not required to hold a public hearing.

“I feel we need to move forward now before those bills become law,” Zmyewski said.

Zmyewski was referring to proposed legislation being considered in both the state House and Senate that would strip counties of much of their authority when it came to issuing moratoriums. Both bills were currently being reviewed in committees and according to Cannon, could possibly be approved by the state House and Senate within a few days or a few months.

Miller agreed and added, “if we pass it now and find out that we did something wrong, we can always rescind it.”

Walter also said she felt it was prudent to pass it and made a motion to do so. Her motion was seconded by Zmyewski and passed 3-0.

Public hearing

A public hearing on silica frac sand mining has been scheduled for March 19 at 6:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Center at La Crescent-Hokah High School in La Crescent. This will be an informational meeting with several experts speaking about the geology and the aquifers of Houston County.

You can contact Charlie Warner at [email protected]