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Commentary: Time needed to answer crucial mining issues

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Monday July 15 the Goodhue County Planning Commission recommended ending the moratorium against new frac-sand mines and processing in the county. The county’s contention is that the ordinance “covers everything.”

As someone who has studied this for two years, I disagree. Here’s why:

1. The county has not done a cost/benefit analysis. Greg Schreck, Lake City Tourism Bureau director, said frac-mining could destroy tourism in Lake City. Commissioner Rechtzigel said it was a waste of money — they have not sought quotes. A 2013 Wisconsin study conducted by Thomas Power, a retired economist and expert on the economics of mining, concluded:

a. The economic benefits of silica sand production are likely to be quite small.

b. Impacts on the environment make the region a less attractive place to live, work and visit

c. Mining can discourage or displace other economic activities.

d. The high quality of life of the region and outdoor recreation potential is central to ongoing economic vitality.

2. Trout fishing generates millions of dollars annually. Trout Unlimited has stated that it will pull future funding for area trout streams if the county refuses to make them off limits to mining.

3. The list of best management practices are primarily links to websites that do little to protect people and the environment.

4. Bill Mavity, a lawyer and supervisor for Pepin County, established a mining overlay district there that prohibits mining from shore to bluff along the Mississippi Great River Road. He volunteered to help Goodhue County do the same. Committee members felt this is impossible in Goodhue County, so they have not contacted him.

5. There is no limit set on the number of mines or processing plants or acreage they can consume. Fillmore County, Minn., has limits. Wisconsin, whichhas no limit, now has 19 operations covering 9165 acres in Jackson County alone.

6. David Williams, a lawyer and township supervisor from Fillmore County who helped write that county’s ordinance, told the commissioners about the weaknesses. He has not been contacted. The weaknesses are:

a. No protection of environmentally sensitive areas albeit 1/3 of the county is a “very high groundwater sensitivity area”.

b. No requirement for on-going or phased reclamation, only an expectation thereof.

c. No mention about the use of flocculants and other toxic chemicals during the extraction and processing of sand.

d. No restrictions on processing of silica, which can transform rural agricultural areas into industrial areas.

e. No distinction between industrial (silica) mining and construction (aggregate) mining. Federal, state and industry standards do make distinctions.

f. No road impact agreements are required (these designate the precise routes of transport).

7. Setbacks and penalties for violations are at the county’s discretion.

A failure to act on these public concerns led Save-the-Bluffs to file for a zoning ordinance amendment requesting a Silica Sand and Natural Resources Overlay District, and a moratorium extension to allow the time to make it happen.

The county’s consultant suggested developing mining districts in 2012 to “provide specific information to surrounding landowners and project proposers about where this use will be allowed.” It would show the setbacks from homes and bluffs that are currently shown, but also show setbacks from environmentally and economically sensitive areas that are not currently specified.

Frac-sand mining is an industrial activity with potentially devastating impacts on our health and welfare (References at savethebluffs.com/news):

• Water usage. Frac-sand mining threatens groundwater reserves. “Local aquifers are not sufficient to provide this demand.” This would impact trout streams, river levels for barge traffic, and water for crops and livestock.

• Water quality. Chemicals used to wash sand break down into acrylamide (a neurotoxin). The effect on soil and groundwater not yet determined. In addition, removing the protective cover of an aquifer may pollute the groundwater.3

• Silica dust. Ambient dust kills. Workers are protected, but no state or fed standards protect residents against particulate matter 2.5-4.0 microns in size. California and Texas have standards.

• Diesel exhaust. The health of southeastern Minnesota is currently in jeopardy because of diesel exhaust. As a solution, Feyereisn, a doctor at Mayo Clinic, recommends no road transportation of sand (rail car only).

• Tourism. In 2011, tourism in Goodhue County generated $69,443,929 in sales, $4,804,647 in taxes and 1,709 jobs, as well as $20,836,630 in wages in 2012 (DEED). The industrial nature of frac-sand mining could greatly reduce these numbers.

• Agriculture. Mining (NAICS code 212322) and agriculture (NAICS code 212311) compete for land resources. The county netted 300 agricultural jobs in 2012 paying $8,373,094 in wages. Converting ag land to mining will affect jobs and exports.

• Tax structure. Gravel and sand for construction and roads (NAICS code 212321) are taxed at a low rate — it is a raw product with minimal profit. Frac-sand (code 212322), by contrast, can yield a pure profit of $46.70/ton, or $1868/truck load.

• Property taxes. Properties within three miles of a mining site will lose 5-30% of their property values.11 A study applying this research in Richland, Mich., found property values decreased by over $31.5 million.

• Traffic, safety. Frac-sand trucks turn 20-year road into two-year road. One mine can generate 100s of trucks daily.13 Slow pullouts onto roads, difficulty stopping.

Yet this year, Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health must adopt rules regarding silica sand and the Environmental Quality Board must amend its rules of environmental review to include silica sand mining and processing. Sen. Matt Schmit’s work gave us the opportunity to add an additional moratorium. Why not hit the pause button, conduct an economic benefit study and create a mining overlay map while waiting for the state’s rules?

The mining committee has done all it can, but that doesn’t mean the work is done and the moratorium should be lifted.

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