Commentary: Strong mining ordinance needed for safetyAs a member of the Goodhue County Mining Study Committee what have I learned?
By: Roseanne Grosso, The Republican Eagle
As a member of the Goodhue County Mining Study Committee what have I learned?
That most folks think “sand is just sand,” even some members of the nine-member committee, and that our current mining ordinance is basically “just fine.”
That ordinance went into effect in 2002 when I was serving as a county commissioner. We had an 18-month moratorium to study the issue of borrow pits, aggregate, sand and gravel mining. It was a good ordinance for its time, but industrial silica sand mining was not on our radar then.
It was in Scott County, Minn., 30 years ago when a relatively new process called fracking to enhance oil production appeared. Ten years later the mines closed when oil from the Middle East was cheaper to buy and the demand for frac sand disappeared. Those mines continued operating for other commercial uses like sand blasting, glass making, road construction, etc.
Demand has returned because fracking, the process of releasing natural gas and oil underground is back big time.
But for how long?
Sandstone is silica sand particles that are naturally occurring non-metallic deposits left along the river 500 million years ago. From the Minnesota River and down the Mississippi River corridor, from Dakota County to Houston County we are blessed or cursed with Jordon Sandstone.
I have learned that this area of Minnesota and Wisconsin has the best sand in the world coveted by the now booming fracking industry — millions of tons that often are easily mined.
Unfortunately, this ancient sand is what our bluffs are made of. Does that mean the bluffs could disappear forever? That wouldn’t happen overnight, some mines could operate for 30 years or longer.
All sand is silica, but frac sand is composed of almost pure quartz grains and is one of the most common minerals found on earth. Industrial silica sand is worth much more than sand/gravel mined locally.
The key word for me is “industrial.” I picture “big.”
Our current ordinance limits sand/gravel mining to 40 open acres at a time. Some mining committee members think that this will control the size and scope of silica mining.
An Oakdale, Wis., mine is on 1,100 acres that has processing capacity of over 1 million tons per year. In Section 4, Article 5, our ordinance reads: A mineral extraction facility … exposes no more than 40 acres at any one time, “unless approved by county staff.”
Did someone leave the back door open a crack?
The processing and shipping of frac sand concerns me the most. There are too many unanswered questions about health when words like “fugitive dust” enter my vocabulary.
I’m from the Iron Range where a University of Minnesota study has been ongoing for years. Mesothelioma is a lung cancer that is 300 times greater there than anywhere else and was thought to be caused by asbestos fibers. They broadened the study to include “shorter asbestos-like fibers” when no firm link to asbestos was found. They have expanded the study again adding “elongated mineral particles” and are looking at the “relatively high exposure to silica dust” in taconite operations as a link because asbestos doesn’t appear to be the culprit.
Stay tuned. Results should be out in 2013.
I have learned that big money can be made. Millions of dollars are being paid for acreage on both sides of the river to landowners willing to sell or lease to the mining companies. Truthfully, I don’t know if I could turn down an opportunity to become wealthy and I certainly understand why folks would do that.
I have also learned that silica sand mining is a divisive topic that can pit neighbor against neighbor.
There was a recent letter regarding committee member John Litsenberger, a mining expert: having a “possible conflict of interest.”
Working as a mining engineer for 40 years, he knows the good, the bad and the ugly of the industry. He and I are on the opposite side of this issue. He has a passion for the mining industry and I do not.
Over the past months I have come to respect his knowledge and honesty. Because he knows the industry intimately, he knows mines must be regulated and our current ordinance should be tightened. I trust his judgment and he is not the member on the committee I am concerned might have a potential conflict of interest.
Litsenberger doesn’t seem to grasp what my issue with “industrial” silica mining is. It may be a difference in perception. He may view mining as producing a product we all need in our daily lives and he could be right. I view it as potentially destructive to the beauty of our prehistoric bluffs on both sides of the Mississippi.
I don’t want our ancient sand to go back into a hole in the ground in North Dakota. Who really benefits? Limited Liability Companies, the frac sand industry, which is oil and gas companies, truckers, railroads?
I have wondered what the purpose of the study committee really is. I have heard county commissioners and committee members say we need an ordinance “that will be defensible in court.”
Shouldn’t the main purpose be to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Goodhue County and our environment? Thankfully, two dates have been added to our schedule so perhaps there will be time to get questions answered.
We probably can’t keep mining out, so as a member of the mining study committee I want to see the best ordinance written to protect what we have in Goodhue County. The county commissioners will decide this issue in August. Share your views, pro or con, with those who have the votes that shape our future.
I have learned that if citizens don’t speak out they can’t complain and shouldn’t be surprised at what can happen. Time is running out.