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2013 top stories: #2 - County strengthens mining rules, extends moratorium

Silica sand mining remained a top concern for area residents in 2013 as state lawmakers and local governments continued to work on new rules regulating the frac sand industry in Minnesota.

The Goodhue County Mining Study Committee spent the first half the year fine tuning a number of ordinance amendments ahead of the Sept. 6 expiration of the county’s extended mining moratorium. The MSC, founded in 2011 after the first yearlong moratorium was approved, presented its proposed changes at a township meeting April 25 in Zumbrota.

"We're working to put together an excellent ordinance proposal," MSC member John Hobert told the packed crowd of township representatives. "I think our county is the leading county in the state."

Area residents and the citizens group Save the Bluffs began pushing for strict mining regulations after an oil company purchased 155 acres of land near Hay Creek Township in 2011. Their concerns focused on silica dust and watershed contamination, as well as environmental and tourism impacts caused by extraction and transportation.

By May 20, the MSC had finalized its updated ordinance and sent it to the Planning Advisory Commission for a vote — the last hurdle before consideration by County Board. The PAC unanimously recommended the updates while adding two amendments of its own.

In St. Paul, legislators debated the state’s approach to silica mining. After weeks of discussion and compromise, the Legislature passed and Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a bill giving the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources permitting authority for mines proposed within a mile of state trout streams. Additional laws also directed state agencies to form a joint technical assistant team and develop new health and environmental standards for silica sand operations.

Public debate in Goodhue County gathered steam in June when County Board narrowly passed the revised county mining ordinance. Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the ordinance after two hours of public comments calling for more restrictions and to extend the mining moratorium a third time.

"I hope the public understands that we can't keep doing perpetual moratoriums," Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel said. "We have to pick something and go with it."

Jody McIlrath, chair of Save the Bluffs, vowed that the group would fight for a moratorium extension to give the state and county more time to research the dangers of silica sand.

Both the MSC and PAC recommended allowing the moratorium to expire Sept. 6, but County Board settled on a six-month extension at a meeting Aug. 6. The decision elicited a round of applause from a crowd of citizens gathered in the Government Center.

Save the Bluffs then worked with Commissioners Rechtzigel and Jim Bryant to develop four additional ordinance proposals. The cooperation was seen as a change of pace from the occasionally heated exchanges between board members and citizens during public hearings.

The MSC reviewed the four proposals throughout the fall, eventually bringing them and a number of additional amendments to the PAC Nov. 18. The commission recommended proposals banning silica mining within a mile of cities, campsites and residential districts; requiring a detailed risk assessment for any mine looking to open with 1,000 feet of public waters in the county’s bluffland; and banning the use of potentially dangerous chemicals in the extraction process.

County Board approved the amendments while strengthening the public waters rule to include a total 1,000-foot ban on new mines in the bluffland and setting a one-mile setback from the Mississippi River. The board further voted to direct staff to develop a clear process to revoke a conditional-use permit should a mine violate its terms.

As the year comes to a close, citizens and state agencies continue to research silica sand and related concerns.

Keith Fossen, a Hay Creek Township supervisor and member of Save the Bluffs, announced he was chosen to be part of the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s silica sand rulemaking advisory panel. The group’s first meeting is expected sometime in January.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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