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Frac sand ban fails in Caledonia

CALEDONIA, Minn. -- What would have been a historic ban of frac sand mining did not come to pass Tuesday in Houston County, as a county board meeting devolved into a shouting match between protesters and commissioners.

The board voted 3-2 against approving an ordinance amendment that would ban industrial mining of silica sand, an ingredient in hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota and other oil and gas areas. Sand mines in southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin have become key suppliers to energy industry, but have drawn protests from people concerned about air quality near the mines and the practice of fracking.

Tuesday morning, an overflow crowd began yelling at the board, which required a supermajority of four votes to pass the ban, which would have been the first such ban in Minnesota.

“Audience members began yelling right away,” said Jeremy Chipps of Families Resisting Energy Extraction. “They were boiling over. People were yelling at the commissioners, and the commissioners were yelling back at people.”

The Houston County Sheriff’s Department removed several members of the overflow crowd. None were arrested, the department said.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski, who voted in favor of the ban with Dana Kjome, said those who spoke out of turn were warranted.

“They just ran them over,” Zmyewski said of commissioners Judie Storlie, Steve Schulte and Teresa Walter, who voted against the ban. “There were three people who spoke out of line just as much -- if not worse -- than those that were kicked out of the meeting, and they were treated differently because they were pro-fracking.”

Many thought the ban was imminent after strong language in the proposed ordinance was approved by county attorney Samuel Jandt.

Ed Walsh, a La Crescent resident who formerly served as a city attorney for towns in Illinois, said such a ban by a county body would be legally defensible.

“The county commission clearly has the legal authority to enact a ban,” he said. “(Jandt) has even written an opinion stating the county has the authority to do so.”

A reversal

Many from the anti-fracking camp had taken a unanimous decision by the board in mid-February to add language banning sand mining to the proposed city ordinance as a clear indicator the ban was to pass.

“I have absolutely no idea why they would (vote down the ban),” Walsh said. “For them to make this kind of reversal is shocking.”

“This is a sleepy, beautiful town where people don’t usually get this politically involved,” Chipps added. “But it is clear people feel deceived by their commissioners.”

Still, the commissioners who voted against the ban said they do not want industrial silica sand mining in their county.

“There is not a commissioner on the board that wants industrial mining to happen here,” Storlie said. “I feel that things should be regulated, and not prohibited. Once you prohibit it, you take away people’s rights, and I don’t believe in taking away people’s rights.”

Zmyewski said Schulte, Storlie and Walters ignored their constituents by not approving the ban.

“We have had public comment for weeks before every commission meeting, and those three are busy playing on their computers and not paying any attention to people speaking,” he said. “We have 92 percent of people surveyed against silica mining, we have a petition of 470 people that say they don’t want it.

“Walters says she had three people call her to tell her they wanted frac sand mining here, and I say ‘I had six people call me today saying they’re against it. So what?’ I have the numbers to back my stance up, and they can’t show me the same.”

The commission also voted against approving an earlier proposed ordinance that would more closely regulate industrial sand mining. This proposal, which Walters said was crafted by the county’s planning and zoning committee, would restrict mine sizes to 60,000 cubic yards per year, and require permits to be renewed every two years.

As the current ordinance stands, there is no restriction to size or permit renewal process, Walters said.

“Ideally, we would approve the planning and zoning ordinance, send it back to them for a few tweaks, and go from there,” she said.

But Zmyewski vowed to continue fighting for an outright ban.

“This is not something I am going to let die,” he said. “I will keep fighting for a ban until we have one.”

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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