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A bird's-eye view of mining

Although a mining moratorium remains in place in Goodhue County, an open-pit silica mine is operational just across the border near Hager City. -- photo by Michael Brun/Republican Eagle1 / 3
Captured from the air at around 3,500 feet, this silica sand mine is one of close to a dozen around Menomonie, Wis. A rural farmstead sits just adjacent to it. -- photo by Michael Brun/Republican Eagle2 / 3
A silica sand processing plant owned by EOG Resources near Chippewa Falls, Wis., is one of the largest in the country. -- photo by Michael Brun/Republican Eagle3 / 3

While debate over mining policy continues in St. Paul, Sen. Matt Schmit chartered flights out of Red Wing Regional Airport Friday for reporters to get a bird's-eye view of the impact frac sand mines are having across the river in Wisconsin.

The roughly hourlong flight, piloted by Jim McIlrath from Frontenac in his homemade, single-engine plane, toured more than a dozen mines dotting the Wisconsin countryside around Menomonie and Eau Claire.

"We have an opportunity to avoid the perils of western Wisconsin," wrote Schmit in a column Feb. 22 after attending a joint meeting of the Senate and House environmental committees regarding frac sand mining. "Let's not repeat their mistakes."

The Red Wing Democrat has been an active proponent in the Senate for increased regulation for frac sand mining in Minnesota.

He has been involved with a number of mining-related bills in his inaugural legislative session, including sponsoring an amendment to an environmental bill that would prohibit frac sand mining within a mile of state trout streams in southeastern Minnesota.

In addition, Schmit previously authored a bill that would establish a state technical advisory council and silica sand board to "provide assistance to local governments to ensure the protection of human health and the environment from silica sand projects."

"This regional approach will allow for a broader view of sand mining impacts," Schmit wrote in a statement.

The bill has been referred to the Finance Committee for further debate.

Wisconsin had around 60 active frac sand mines and 30 processing plants at the start of 2012, clustered mostly in west-central counties, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

In recent years, there has been a surge in permit applications for new mines around the state, the Wisconsin DNR said.

Currently there are eight mines extracting silica sand -- the most common type of industrial frac sand -- in Minnesota, but four counties, including Goodhue, have imposed mining moratoriums over environmental and health concerns.

Public activism against frac sand mining reached a new high April 29 when police arrested 35 protestors disrupting a frac sand processing plant and dock in Winona.

The mining moratorium in Goodhue County expires Sept. 6.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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