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February 3, 2023

5/2/2013 2:03:00 PM
Conference on creating local controls for frac sand mining operations brings area officials together
North Branch was represented at the frac sand ordinance conference, in St. Croix Falls, by Council member Kathy Blomquist pictured asking a question of the expert panel during open microphone.

North Branch was represented at the frac sand ordinance conference, in St. Croix Falls, by Council member Kathy Blomquist pictured asking a question of the expert panel during open microphone.


Can the pristine St. Croix River experience and the silica sand mining operations expected to proliferate near the riverway, co-exist? As industrial silica sand mining expands in this region, that’s ripe with geologic formations that support silica sand deposits; will local officials be prepared for this vastly more intensive form of mining?

Leaders from towns and counties all along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border and in the St. Croix watershed came together last weekend to learn about what’s being done to regulate silica or “frac sand” mining. Some who have been involved in this issue for several years came to share their personal experiences with this industry. The conference was hosted by the St. Croix River Scenic Byway, and River Coalition and was held in St. Croix Falls’ Public Library. Frac sand or silica sand mining is causing concerns for local zoning authorities, public health officials and for citizens suddenly finding their farms, homes or cabins on the edge of a sand mine. Silica sand mining is considered “industrial” whereas aggregate mining for gravel and rock is considered “construction” mining.

It was explained by one of the speakers at last weekend’s conference that the MN Dept. of Natural resources differentiates between these mining styles when it leases land for private sector extraction of products. The precedent exists, he stated, for local regulations to differentiate between the mining processes. In comparing silica sand mining to aggregate operations-- silica sand mining puts greater strain on natural resources. The waste materials are of a much larger quantity and the contents are potentially hazardous. Going after the deposits in bedrock sandstone exposes groundwater to contamination and depletion. Crystalline silica sand is a known health concern, according to a public health representative Dr. Tracy Sides.

Frac sand mining and processing are intensive because they are produced around-the-clock. Gravel extraction is pretty much a seasonal deal. Aggregate is commonly utilized for local projects-- it is not shipped to parts of the U.S. where gas is extracted from underground. Silica sand used for hydro-fracking is transported extensively. Construction materials mine sites are smaller than sand extraction operations, and don’t rely on the use of chemical additives. The process relies on flocculation, which adds a compound that aids in separating the clay and other unwanted particles from the fine sand. The St. Croix Coalition is compiling a database of ordinances and regulations enacted related to frac sand mining activity in Wisconsin-Minnnesota. The organization is working with local activists to create a framework of resources.

Those attending the conference also got information on studies and lawsuits that are relevant to the issue. One speaker was Pat Popple, a retired teacher. She got interested in frac sand mining in 2006 and by 2008 the Concerned Chippewa Citizens group was formed as local governments started extending Conditional Use Permits to silica sand operations near Popple’s neighborhood. She said that in Wisconsin, public authorities and lawmakers seem to be leaving it up to counties and townships to regulate frac sand operations. There are way too many unanswered questions to ignore what’s happening, Popple said. There may be standards now being set for operations but who is enforcing the penalties? Who do concerned people even report violations to?

Melanie Kleiss Boerger has been coordinating development of a “model frac sand ordinance” for the St. Croix River Association. She said there’s also a Wisconsin counties group drafting an ordinance; but from what she’s seen the counties’ version gives public participation in permits short-shrift and doesn’t call for much in the way of penalties for permit violations. The St. Croix Riverway is a major driver of the region’s economy, she added.

Tourism and seasonal property contribute to jobs being available, services being provided, etc. There’s no consideration given right now to factoring into a permit reviewal the loss of tourism and recreation revenue. Ill-prepared local elected officials are promised a boom in local jobs and tax revenue increases if they’d only welcome this industry. David Williams agreed that citizen initiative is very important at this point in time. Williams drove up to the St. Croix Falls Library from southeast Minnesota, where he drafted the Fillmore County mining ordinance. Williams is a township supervisor and a retired attorney. He said citizens have been guiding government response. It will take the voice of the people to “develop the political will” to regulate this industry. It’s preferable, Williams advised, to write ordinances that provide protections up front during siting, instead of writing a lot of operational conditions that are more difficult and costly to enforce later. Kathy

Blomquist, North Branch City Council, spoke briefly about the city’s frac sand processing facility, wondering if most of what’s being formulated is focused on mining. Williams said the cities of Red Wing and Winona have strong ordinances on frac sand processing that would be valuable to review. Sunrise Township Supervisor Jeske Noodergraaf and resident Joyce Marienfeld said it’s been frustrating dealing locally with Tiller Corp, which declared it’s going to use the Sunrise pit to “store some sand” mined in Wisconsin and then haul in 500,000 tons. Chisago County Zoning Enforcement Officer Steve Putnam said Tiller submitted an EAW to the county but the county “sent it back” because there wasn’t an actual permit being applied for.

The Environmental Assessment Worksheet was for some kind of unidentified “expansion” of the Sunrise operation, he said.

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