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Commentary: Planning Commission should take key steps

On Monday Nov. 18 at 6 p.m., the Goodhue County Planning Advisory Commission will vote to recommend (or not) changes to the county’s zoning ordinance and Comprehensive Plan.

In August, Save-the-Bluffs asked for a Silica Sand and Resource Protection Overlay District and an economic cost/benefit analysis, both of which were dismissed.

Discussions between county Commissioners Dan Rechtzigel and Jim Bryant and Save-the-Bluffs leaders led to four points of agreement. (“Operations” include frac-sand mining, processing, washing, trans-loading.)

1. No operations within one mile of cities, R1 zoned districts, and campgrounds.

Elevated levels of ambient crystalline silica dust have been linked to silicosis in both humans and animals (including 1-year-old pigs). A study near the Chippewa Falls, Wis., mine found dust levels higher than Environmental Protection Agency’s standard one mile upwind and 1½ miles downwind of the mine. This summer, frac-sand dust was found in the school filtration system in New Auburn, Wis., after students complained of asthma like symptoms (mines are quarter and one mile away).

2. No operations within one mile of the high water mark of the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi and Highway 61 bring tourists. In 2011, Goodhue County tourism generated $4,804,647 in taxes and $20,836,630 in wages for 1,709 people. An economic study by Power (2013) found towns near the Mississippi in Wisconsin needed outdoor recreation to protect economies and the quality of life.

Pepin County protected their tourism economy by banning frac-sand operations from shore to bluff along their Great River Road. Red Wing, Lake City, Florence Township and Hay Creek Township signed resolutions supporting at least a 1 mile setback.

3. Prohibit the use of flocculants in the washing and processing of frac-sand.

Most frac-sand processing uses flocculants (chemicals) in holding ponds to speed the separation of unwanted particulates from the refined silica frac-sand. Waste containing flocculants (one of which breaks down into a neurotoxin) are put back into the pit as part the reclamation process.

The effect on soil and groundwater are undetermined. In addition, permitting only dry processing will keep billions of gallons of water each year in our aquifers.

4. Set harsh penalties for violations -- such as canceling the permit.

Nearly one-fifth of Wisconsin’s 70 active frac-sand mines and processing plants were cited for environmental violations last year (Prengamen, 2013). This includes a spill into the St. Croix River discovered by a hiker in April 2012.

"I'm sure there were things living there that are going to have difficulty living there now that they're covered with sand," Tom Woletz, senior manager with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

This is why Trout Unlimited may pull future funding for area trout streams, if the county refuses to make them off limits to mining.

One item not being considered that should be is limiting the number of active mines or daily hauling activity. Fillmore County set a maximum of five active frac-sand operations and Hay Creek Township set a maximum of 50 round-trip truck-trips per day (neither permit processing).

This prevents trucks passing the same point every two to three minutes for 16 hours each day (like in Wisconsin), which impacts our health (diesel particulates) and economy (tourists won’t compete with trucks).

Since the Goodhue County Mining Study Committee only supported items No. 3 and 4, it is unlikely the Planning Commission will support all points.

But wouldn't it make sense if they did?