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Mining Study Committee member John Litsenberger (right) defends the county’s mining ordinance Monday night, saying the group has sufficiently researched and addressed the impacts of silica mining after more than two years of discussion. (Republican Eagle photos by Michael Brun)

Silica amendments pass hurdle

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The Goodhue County Planning Advisory Commission voted Monday night to adopt a number of amendments strengthening the county’s ordinance and comprehensive plan regarding silica sand mining.

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One of the biggest changes would create a one-mile setback for silica mines and processing facilities from cities, campsites and residential districts.

The PAC voted to recommend the amendment by a 5-2-1 vote. Commissioners Joan Volz and Tom Drazkowski voted against the proposal and Larry Olson abstained.

PAC Commissioner and County Board Chair Dan Rechtzigel, who forwarded the motion, said the setbacks would address safety, traffic and economic development concerns related to mining close to populated areas.

Commissioners were similarly divided on a proposal to restrict mineral extraction facilities near public waters within the bluffland subsection defined by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The PAC ultimately voted 5-to-3 to require mining applicants to conduct a hydrogeological risk assessment report during the permitting process if a facility is planned within 1,000 feet of public waters in the bluffland. 

PAC Chair Rich Bauer, Rechtzigel and Volz voted against the motion, and instead sought to prohibit mining within 1,000 feet of public waters entirely.

Cancer concerns

The commission further voted to adopt rules prohibiting the use of flocculants — such as acrylamides linked to certain types of cancer — in the mineral extraction process; to direct county staff to establish a clear procedure to revoke conditional-use permits should a mining operation violate its terms; and add a section recognizing the importance of recreation and tourism in the county’s comprehensive plan.

The PAC voted unanimously to deny an additional amendment that would prohibit mining within a mile of the high water mark of the Mississippi River to protect the Great River Road. Commissioners agreed the one-mile setback from the river would fail to cover large stretches of the road.

Four of the proposed ordinance amendments were the result of talks between Rechtzigel, County Board Commissioner Jim Bryant and citizens group Save the Bluffs.

Keith Fossen, speaking on behalf of Save the Bluffs, said a stricter ordinance is needed to protect residents.

“And although a lot of people, including myself, would say even those four points aren’t good enough,” Fossen said, “it’s a step in the right direction, and I think it can help restore some of the public trust that there’s going to be some black and white lines drawn.”

Save the Bluffs proposed in August that the county extend its mining moratorium for another year; create an overlay district to show exactly where mining would not be allowed; and called on county staff to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of silica mining in the area.

But the group requested that a discussion of the proposals be tabled so the PAC could instead focus on the compromise amendments that came out of talks with Rechtzigel and Bryant.

The county’s Mining Study Committee — founded in 2011 to research updating the mining ordinance — reviewed Save the Bluff’s proposals at a meeting Oct. 3.

The MSC recommended the PAC deny all of the amendments except for the ban on flocculants and setting harsher penalties for permit violations.

MSC members spoke at Monday’s meeting to explain their recommendations prior to the PAC’s vote.

MSC member John Litsenberger defended the current mining ordinance, and said the points brought up by Save the Bluffs were already discussed in committee meetings.

“We spent two and a half years in developing these ordinances and I think we did a very good job on it,” Litsenberger said. “We put a lot of time in it, a lot of consideration.”

MSC members’ comments came after a nearly two-hour public hearing portion in which all but one area resident spoke out in favor of greater restrictions on silica mining in the county.

The public’s concerns focused largely on potential impacts to the water table and whether Minnesota Pollution Control Agency rules and air monitoring would be strict enough to protect citizens from silica dust.

John Kern of Red Wing suggested the county put more rules into its ordinance now instead of trying to add them after problems arise.

“I would suggest to you that if you err on the side of being too restrictive, it would be relatively easy to fix that,” Kern said. “If you err on the side of not being restrictive enough, you ain’t fixing it no matter how you try.”

The Goodhue County Mining Moratorium ends March 6.

The amendments adopted by the PAC will go before County Board for a vote after a public hearing Thursday Dec. 5 in the Government Center.

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Michael Brun
Michael Brun is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program. He has worked for the Republican Eagle since March 2013, covering county government, health and local events. 
(651) 301-7875
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