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A View From the Woods - 12/19/11


Fri, Dec 16th, 2011
Posted in Columnists

Frack Sand Mining comes to Lake Wobegone

Sometimes I love how our home in the hills of southeast Minnesota seems like the land that time forgot, a quiet haven at the end of the road. Last week every step outdoors brought gasps of wonderment at the frosty snow encapsulating every twig and branch and fence post. By day a brilliant sun turned the forest into a glittering fantasy world, and by night a radiant full moon rose and slid across the sparkling skies. We do live in paradise, and are thankful at this, the darkest time of the year.

Beautiful it is, but of course we are not disconnected from the rest of the industrial and urban world. We are part of it too. The latest reminder comes in the form of proposed frack sand mining in Fillmore County. Must we really become educated about yet another environmental threat? Yes, we must.

I look at the big picture, as I am wont to do, to figure out the context. The context here is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas and oil-which is causing a huge ruckus in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, North Dakota, Texas and other states where gas or oil deposits lie underground. Explosive growth in natural gas production results from fracking technology which now enables the industry to exploit formerly inaccessible rock formations. By injecting silica sand, chemicals, and enormous quantities of water underground, companies fracture the rocks to let the natural gas escape into wells for recovery. A cascade of public outrage usually follows for neighbors who are left with polluted wells and ugly extraction sites.

That is not what is happening here. Our role in this saga is a different one. We, along with other counties on either side of the Mississippi River, happen to have deposits of the high quality silica sand so essential to natural gas fracking. Frack sand is what the industry wants from Fillmore County. Two proposals to mine sand in Fillmore County are pending, while the proposers were told to prepare Environmental Assessment Worksheets.

It is hard to comprehend the potential level of demand for this excellent sand. One landowner near Red Wing sold 155 acres at $17,000 an acre for a sand mine, according to MPR. Last week the Duluth harbor received its first oceangoing vessel loaded with fracking sand, shipped all the way from Russia, possibly destined for North Dakota gas fracking or Canadian oil fields. Tens of thousands of fracking wells are under development, and they all need silica sand.

Further putting pressure on Fillmore County is the fact that our neighboring counties to the east are enacting moratoriums on frack sand mining, realizing that they are not prepared to understand the effects or put the proper controls in place. Goodhue and Wabasha Counties suspended development, and Winona County plans to vote on a moratorium in the next few weeks. If Fillmore County is not prepared, we may see a flood of frack sand mining proposals from developers wanting to lock in mines here, before we get our act together.

In one sense, sand and gravel mining are nothing new here. For over a century, local landowners have dug what was needed for local roads and construction projects. We have ordinances in place, and the ability to place requirements on conditional use permits, for the kind of small scale pits we are used to.

But frack sand mining pushes us past our comfort zone. Will these mines be hundreds of acres in scope? Could there be many such mines? Would there be blasting and underground mining to reach silica sand in the deeper Jordan sandstone? Will there be industrial gravel washing with high water use and pollution from sand treatment chemicals? Is there any way to reclaim huge pits, and if there is, how can we be sure responsible companies will stick around to fulfill their obligations? What about traffic and road degradation? What protections are there for neighbors who are damaged?

Southeast Minnesota has a ripe opportunity to step back and carefully consider what role we want to play, if any, in the fracking industry. I hope our county leaders assert themselves to pass a moratorium and give us the time to complete research, in order to get our ordinances and conditional use permit requirements up to date.

Paradise doesn't just happen; it takes courageous citizens who decide to actively defend our beautiful community.

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