By Daniel E. McGonigle
The Caledonia Argus
Heather Arends and Erik Dahl of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board were in Houston County gathering local input into drafting a document regarding silica sand mining in the state.
In May of 2013, the state legislature placed a mandate on the EQB to come up with a document that the state can use in the permitting process.
Along with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency), the Department of Air Quality among other agencies, the EQB has been working across agencies and disciplines regarding silica sand mines.
“It is one piece of a larger puzzle,” Arends said of the eventual document. “Various parts will address air, water, transparency, operations, transportation, considerations for set-backs and many other issues.”
From lighting to hours of operations, the state is considering each factor in the process of mining for sands.
Houston Counties testimony and input into the document is vital given the rich cache of sand that the county could provide.
Five members of the industry, five community members, including Kelley Stanage of Houston County, and members of the EQB and other state agencies, have been meeting to discuss how the statewide document should look.
The “work in progress” being drawn up by what is being called the “Silica Sand Technical Advisory Team” has involved multiple agencies.
“We’ve tried to address specific questions,” noted Arends.
“We want to engage local input early and often,” noted Dahl. “The Silica Sand Rule Advisory Panel meets monthly in Oronoco.”
The multi-agency process is being methodical. However, when asked how soon he expected to have something in place, Dahl said he hoped to have a document to be considered sometime in early 2015.
Local input critical
“Our goal is to get on the same page so we’re all speaking the same language,” said Dahl. “As a group we continue to discuss what each agency finds important. Going forward, however, we’d like to develop draft rules with similar language.”
Dahl said the group continues to work on a Statement of Need and Reasonableness.
The EQB continues to pare down towards finding a suitable definition of what constitutes a silica sand mine and what thresholds should be considered.
Dan Griffin, the Houston County planning and zoning commission chairman, said “a good definition is important. If the state can define it, then it gives us something at the local level that we can work from.”
Water tables, a suitable statewide definition of a “bluff”, suitable emissions of diesel fuel, what constitutes a “commercial or an industrial mine” are all issues being discussed and attempted to be defined.
However, industry might have a different thought about such things then would an environmentalist.
“A bluff in western Minnesota is very different than a bluff in Houston County,” said Arends. “We need to define all sizes. Not every mine is the same.”
Arends said the process for creating the document has drawn heavily from the states experiences regarding Iron Range mining in Northern Minnesota.
“A hole in the ground is a hole in the ground,” said Arends. “Whether it is for frac sand mining or sand used for animal bedding, for rule making a mine is a unique being.”
“One of the things we’ve wrestled with on the planning commission has been volume,” commissioner Justin Zymweski said. “You might have a 20 acre pit that has one truck per year. Then you might have a five acre pit that takes a 1,000 trucks per week out.”
The document must also consider things like the port at Winona where sand is transported to its eventual destination.
“Whether it’s corn, soybeans or silica sands, the port at Winona has only a certain amount of capacity,” said Zymewski. “Once it is tapped out it is tapped out.”
As part of the legislation, the legislature would like to see a document by July 15, 2015.
“We’re working as fast as we can,” said Dahl. “We’re going slow and fast at the same time, if that makes sense. Like I said, we’re hoping to have something people can comment on early next year.”
“The perception is that this is set in stone,” added Arends. “We want to throw draft rules out there, gather feedback and then continue to work with the document.”
Arends and Dahl were next on their way to Wabasha and later would meet with officials in the Minnesota River Valley. They are also gathering input from metro interests.
But, they acknowledged that Houston County is ground zero in terms of the silica sand mining discussion.