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Sand mining plan could be staggering

An aerial view of a silica sand mine outside of Eau Claire, Wis., in May 2013. (Republican Eagle file photo by Michael Brun)

MINNEAPOLIS -- A proposed silica sand mining project in southeastern Minnesota could change the nature of the industry in the state.

Or not.

Nobody is quite sure what to expect at the end of February, when Minnesota Sands LLC submits its revised business plan to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board. The size of the project has varied wildly since Minnesota Sands founder Rick Frick and his partners began pursuing mining operations in the area to extract a key ingredient used in hydraulic fracturing across the globe, including in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Patch.

“Originally, we heard it was 11 mines in three counties,” said Johanna Rupprecht, a policy organizer for the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project. “Then it was going to be in two counties, and now even more mines in four or five counties?”

Until the new business plan is submitted, the size of Minnesota Sands’ proposal will remain speculation. But, if the project is on the higher end of what Rupprecht has heard from various sources, it would more than double the number of sand mines in the state.

“There have been a few mines proposed here and there that we’ve heard of … this would definitely be the biggest mining operation we would have in southeastern Minnesota,” Rupprecht said. “Minnesota Sands has not been forthcoming about the size or scope of the project.”

Forum News Service was unable to reach Frick for this article.

The mining and refining of silica sand is prone to releasing fine particles in the air, which can quickly degrade air quality. So, the size of the Minnesota Sands project is of particular importance to environmental groups.

The uncertainty about the project has caused environmentalist groups such as the Land Stewardship Project to be on edge about Minnesota Sands, as they point to air and water quality concerns near mining and processing sites -- particularly in what is called the “Driftless Area” of southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

“The biodiversity here is pretty special,” Rupprecht said. “There are plants and animals found here not found anywhere else in the region.”

But to call the Minnesota Sands proposal something that could be calamitous to the environment is premature, says Dennis Egan, executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council.

“We don’t even know what the project is yet,” he said, “so how can we say it will be devastating?”

Activity spike in Wisconsin

Silica sand, also known as frac sand, is used in a wide array of industries. It is used in the production of fiber optic cables and microchips for computers -- hence “Silicon Valley” -- and in sandblasting.

But it is its use as a proppant in the hydraulic fracturing process, propping open the fractures that are created by high-pressure fluids, that has caused the spike in silica sand mining in Wisconsin, and has spurred the Minnesota Sands proposal.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ lead on industrial sand issues, Deb Dix, said the industry has “exploded” in the past few years in response to increased demand from fracking.

Since 2010, the state has gone from five mining facilities and five processing plants to 63 active mining sites and 45 active processing plants as of May 1. The DNR has had to reallocate its resources in certain departments, such as stormwater and air permitting, and have added two new air quality inspectors.

“Our management has done a good job restructuring to accommodate the increased demands” from the spike in activity, Dix said.

While the DNR does what it can to inspect silica facilities, Dix said the public plays a key role in holding mining companies accountable.

“People might think that it sounds bad, but we rely on people in the community, or people driving by the sites to let us know if they see something that looks wrong,” she said. “We can’t be everywhere, so we appreciate any feedback we can get.

“Sometimes, it turns out to be nothing, but it’s better to know than to not.”

Increased legislation

Mining operations near Mississippi River towns such as Red Wing and Winona have had an impact on Minnesota towns for years, but silica sand mining in Minnesota is far less common than the state’s neighbor to the east. Minnesota does have its own mines near cities such as Mankato, St. Peter and Winona.

Don’t mistake the size of the industry for inexperience, says Egan of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council.

“This is not a new industry in Minnesota,” the Red Wing man said, citing the nearly 80-year-old Unimin mine near St. Peter. “But there are only eight mining and processing facilities and one (standalone) processing facility in Minnesota. I believe that has to do with the great environmental review process we have.”

In 2013, Gov. Mark Dayton signed new legislation addressing silica sand operations in Minnesota. The Environmental Quality Board has since tightened its rules regarding environmental review for proposed silica sand mining and processing sites and created resources for local governments to assist with ordinance development, permitting and other issues.

Erik Dahl of the EQB said the changes made because of the legislative mandate have intensified the permitting process. For instance, the board dropped the minimum size for a mining operation to be required to undergo an environmental review from 40 acres to 20 acres.

The permitting process goes beyond the board’s requirements, too, he said.

“Most new mining operations do trigger additional state permits,” Dahl said in an email. “For example, the (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) stormwater/wastewater permits are required for disturbances greater than 1 acre. Depending on the operation and equipment being used at the site, MPCA may require an air permit as well.”

The amount of time it will take for a new operation like Minnesota Sands to make it through the permitting process is based on many different variables. An environmental review will take place once the business plan is submitted, which will reveal what type of permits the company will need to get through the EQB, MPCA, DNR or other government entities, Dahl said. That process could last several months or up to several years.

Robb Jeffries

Robb Jeffries is a news coordinator for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and previously served as a reporter and copy editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at rjeffries@forumcomm.com and follow him on Twitter at @robbjeffries.

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