Houston County mining moratorium extended

By Emily Bialkowski &
T.W. Budig

Caledonia Argus


A provision allowing local government statewide to extend or renew frac sand mining moratoriums until 2015 was approved by a State Senate committee Feb. 26 – just in time for Houston County to approve a one-year extension on its moratorium.

A variety of viewpoints continue to be heard on the issue at the local, regional and state level, but for perhaps the first time in recent months, an air of relief and gratitude was shared at the county board meeting March 5.

“Only the county board can put the health, safety and welfare above the frac sand industry interests. This is not an easy process, and I’m sure you’re getting pressure from many different interest groups. By choosing to study this issue and getting answers to questions that are yet unanswered, … your commitment to finding answers before allowing Houston County to become an industrial region is to be commended,” resident Kelley Stanage said.

Resident Sarah Joy Wexler-Mann shared similar sentiments, saying, “I live in rural Yucatan Township, and I thank you for your commitment to further study of this issue. This is new in the sense of scale. The impact it stands to have on our communities is different [than traditional aggregate mining] and needs some examination.”

Discussion at the Houston County level hasn’t always been so cordial and it hasn’t been at the Capitol either.

“With that moratorium,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, of mining dollars being invested in the state, “that will not happen.”

Republicans on the Senate Environment and Energy Committee questioned several provisions in Sen. Matt Schmit’s silica-sand mining legislation.

“My goal here is to get it right,” Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said of crafting a response to the “gold rush” silica-sand fever perceived in the mining industry.

Schmit, in his bill, creates a new Southeast Minnesota Silica Sand Board composed of county and state officials charged with developing minimum standards for silica-sand mining. Local governments could opt-out, but local governments that adopt the minimum standards would be eligible for an enhanced silica-sand production tax for local roads and bridges, cleaning up abandoned pits and quarries, and other mining-related expenses.

Republicans objected to specifying the use of the tax dollars, but Sen. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, defended it, saying it assured that the money wouldn’t wind up being spent on building additions.

Mining industry officials repeatedly stressed support for strong state standards, but argued the legislation was overkill. Scott Sustacek of Jordan Sands, pointing to the tan stone of the State Capitol committee room and saying it was mined by the company a century ago in Mankato, said silica sand is found under the stone in its quarry.

They want to develop the 70-acre site, but the bill would bring the plan to a “screeching halt,” he said. Also, taxing silica sand in Minnesota would put producers at a disadvantage against producers in Wisconsin, he argued.

Operating Engineers Local 49’s Jason George said the bill risks $40 an hour wage packages in Greater Minnesota. “The life of the pit is coming to end,” he said of some quarrying.

Allowing silica-sand mining could mean workers could stay on, perhaps even work into retirement at the same mining location. Sand, dust and odors are simply part of rural living, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, argued.

Her comment drew a disapproving murmur from bill advocates in the committee room.

Several Republican amendments were offered to change the legislation, but failed. The bill, which passed the committee on a party-line vote, will have the mining industry looking elsewhere to make investments, Benson said.

The legislation is expected to make a series of stops in different Senate committees. There is no companion legislation yet in the House.

Locally, the Houston County Board unanimously agreed to extend its frac sand mining moratorium for another year.

During a Feb. 12 joint meeting of the Houston County Board, the plan commission and the frac sand study committee, land use attorney Jay Squires suggested a draft ordinance regulating mining in the county be held for further discussion and review. He said any decision has to be based on sound reasoning so it can be defended in court.

The issue continues to gain regional momentum as counties in southeast Minnesota try to navigate uncharted water.

At the Feb. 19 county board meeting, County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski revealed that neighboring Fillmore County is on the precipice of approving a mine that may send up to 120 trucks through Houston County a day. In response, Houston County sent a letter to Fillmore County urging further study and information on the matter.

So, even as the Houston County Board of Commissioners tries to do its best for residents and businesses in this county, the need for regional oversight is quite evident.

Most recently – and by the lead of Fillmore County – a letter was sent to the state asking for help on five proposed frac sand mines encompassing about eight miles within Houston, Fillmore and Winona Counties. The project is being proposed by one entity, Minnesota Sands, LLC, and the letter specifically asks the state Environmental Quality Board to designate a state agency to act as the regulatory government unit to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the mines.

“Because these proposed mines would span over three southeastern Minnesota counties and involve the same prospector, … it would  not be in the best interest for one county to take the responsibility of conducting an EIS when several counties are involved,” the letter states.

While the county, region and state grapple with this new type of mining,  a variety of parties, such as mining companies, conservationists and legislators, are watching closely to see how regulation will influence this industry.