Committee hearing considers changes to silica sand mining regulations to be imposed by MNPCA

Representatives of the Land Stewardship Project, as well as several other residents of SE Minnesota, implored the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MNPCA) to reconsider a proposed bill that would eliminate rules regarding particulate emissions from silica-sand mines.

“This bill would put the profits of frac sand corporations ahead of the best interests of the people of Minnesota, and that is wrong,” said Johanna Rupprecht, a policy organizer with the Land Stewardship Project.

Should is pass, the bill would eliminate a requirement that the MNPCA adopt rules regulating particulate emissions from silica sand mines.

The bill’s sponsor is Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, who said mining companies are already heavily regulated

“We’re not repealing any standards that are not already in place today,” she told members of the Senate committee “We are not giving the frac sand industry a pass. They still have very rigid requirements that they have to follow.”

The proposed bill would ease requirements that the MNPCA establish air quality rules which date back to 2013 when the legislature approved a package of additional regulations for silica sand mining.

The proposed requirements came at a time when the industry was rapidly growing, thanks largely to North Dakota’s oil boom.

The sand is a key ingredient in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” The technique involves pumping sand, water and chemicals into oil and natural gas wells within shale formations. The high pressure mixture creates fractures in the rock, releasing the oil and gas trapped inside which companies can then extract.

Houston County sits upon a bevy of possible sand for use in the process.

As oil prices have dropped, interest in mining the sand has also dropped.

However, with the changing political climate on a national scale,  some southeast Minnesota residents are worried oil prices will go back up again, which could fuel renewed interest in opening new silica sand mines.

Representatives of the silica-sand mining industry testified in support of Ruud’s bill.

Brett Skilbred, vice-president of Jordan Sands, said the company’s Mankato-based mining operation had to get an air emissions permit from the MPCA in 2014 that set strict requirements.

“We aren’t here in an attempt to limit the agency’s ability to protect public health,” he said. “We are here to stress that current rules work appropriately. We are here to stress that the proposed rules put an unnecessary burden on our business.”

However, the bill’s opponents told members of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee that there is still not enough research to make conclusions about potential health effects for residents living near silica sand mines.

The MNPCA also does not support the proposed bill.

The agency’s legislative director Greta Gauthier said it makes sense to move ahead with the new rules.

“We believe this rule will provide regulatory certainty and transparency regarding applicable and basic requirements for this industry,” Gauthier said.

She counters the ‘unnecessary burden on business’ argument by stating that the rules make the permitting process simpler for the agency and mines as they would no longer have to make ‘site-specific’ requirements.

The rules are also meant to assist local governments in understanding the state’s role in monitoring air emissions.

Democrats on the committee voiced opposition to Ruud’s bill.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, asked, “Why wouldn’t we just simply allow the PCA to proceed with the rules to make sure the dust clouds and alike don’t escape from these facilities?”

Following a lengthy discussion in committee, no vote was taken.

It is being considered for possible inclusion as part of a larger environmental policy bill.

Ruud serves as the committee’s chairwoman.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester co-authored the bill. A similar measure has been introduced in the House.

Environmentalists told the senators that residents “fought hard” in 2013 to get lawmakers to pass silica sand mining regulations.

Citizens were concerned that changing things just three or four years into regulations seemed like the wrong course of action.