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State reports headway on silica concerns

Alan Muller, Red Wing, addresses state officials during a silica sand meeting Friday at the St. James Hotel. Muller was one of several area residents who voiced concern over the Goodhue County mining moratorium, which is set to expire Sept. 6 unless County Board votes to extend it. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun)

A crowd of around 50 local government representatives and concerned citizens gathered Friday in the St. James Hotel for a meeting with state officials on the topic of silica sand regulation and the creation of a mining advisory team.

Officials revealed agencies have wasted no time getting regulatory processes and standards in place for silica mining in the state.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the DNR has completed a set of rules for mines looking to open within a mile of trout streams in southeastern Minnesota.

"We have developed a process already that is ready to go in terms of dealing with application requests," Landwehr said, including a mandatory pre-application meeting between the mining company and DNR staff.

As part of the process, DNR can require up to a year of surface water monitoring to be used as a baseline before mining operations begin, as well as order a detailed hydrologic analysis on the potential impact mining may have on groundwater.

"The DNR has jurisdiction to review the impacts and choose not to grant a permit," Landwehr said.

"We're ready to go with this process now," he said, adding that DNR has the discretion to change the rules as it sees fit. "Obviously, if there's something we can do to improve this process, we will do that."

The Minnesota Department of Health likewise has made progress in recent weeks, including developing a health-based value for long- term contact with crystalline silica in the air.

"The mission of the Minnesota Department of Health is to protect, maintain and improve the health of all Minnesotans," said Jim Kelly, MDH manager of environmental surveillance and assessment. "And as as part of that mission, we have been actively following news around silica sand over the past year and a half."

Kelly said the MDH has determined the health-based value of airborne silica crystals is 3 micrograms per cubic meter, a standard that now can be used by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and local governments to guide ordinances or serve as a reference point in air-quality monitoring.

He added that MDH labs also have nearly completed development on a new method to monitor waterway contamination by polyacrylamides, one of several flocculent chemicals used to treat waste water in the silica mining process.

"We will continue to research and evaluate the potential health impacts associated with this industry, respond to requests for information and participate in the silica sand technical advisory team," Kelly said.

MPCA Commissioner John Stine said state agencies are identifying staff to serve on the advisory team, and that he expects it will be ready to provide assistance starting Oct. 1.

"That's the goal of the legislation and I think we'll be able to do that," Stine said.

Road impacts

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle addressed concerns over state, county and township roads, which are expected to see increased traffic by trucks hauling silica sand.

Although MnDOT does not have authority to make specific rules on the issue, Zelle said the agency will play a "robust" advisory role.

"We're going to look at ways we can be helpful to provide assistance when determining impact on roadways and public health," Zelle said.

Red Wing City Council member Peggy Rehder told Zelle that she worries about trucks full of silica sand coming in from Wisconsin and passing through downtown.

"We are very concerned not just about what damage there might be to roads, but also in terms of what kind of exposure (to silica dust) there might be for citizens," Rehder said.

City Council member Marilyn Meinke added that construction of a new bridge between Red Wing and Wisconsin could complicate the matter further, both during construction and once it is completed.

Jody McIlrath, a member of the Florence Township Planning Commision and chairwoman of the local citizens activist group Save-the-Bluffs, said local government ordinances have no control over U.S. Highway 61, the scenic byway connecting nearby river towns.

She said approved mines and facilities in Wabasha and Winona counties will mean silica sand truck traffic will be increasing on Highway 61 soon.

"We know there are places in North Dakota that, because of high truck volumes, the roads have been reduced to gravel," Zelle said. "We take it very seriously how an industry can affect infrastructure and quality of life."

Citizens respond

Area residents largely thanked officials for taking the time to listen to their input, but articulated a growing sense of frustration with Goodhue County government during discussions over extending the county's mining moratorium.

Alan Muller of Red Wing said that although township and city leaders have represented citizen's interests pertaining to silica sand mining, Goodhue County officials have been less responsive.

"It seems to me the leaders of Goodhue County, to a certain extent, have turned a tin ear to community concerns and have listened disproportionately to the industry point of view."

Kathleen Bibus, also of Red Wing, said citizens have seen mixed results when dealing with Goodhue County commissioners and the county's Mining Study Committee.

"I think sometimes we're viewed as more of a nuisance and as a pest," Bibus said.

The Goodhue County Mining Study Committee and Planning Advisory Commission both recommended not to extend the county's mining moratorium past Sept. 6 --EMDASH-- despite fervent public pressure to continue studying the health, environmental and economic impacts of mining.

The PAC agreed the county's revised mining ordinance is comprehensive enough to protect citizens, and that the mining vommittee has had sufficient time to study available options.

County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel, who also serves on the PAC, reiterated during the meeting the county's intention to utilize the state silica sand advisory team, especially in matters of air and water protections.

"We do not want one industry to be hogging up an aquifer and drying it out, or to be dumping polluted water and destroying the water that's there," Rechtzigel said. "If we can develop some sort of best practices when it comes to the recycling of water, that would help."

Land-use Management Director Lisa Hanni suggested to the state officials that they conduct a hypothetical exercise to test agencies and local ordinances prior to reviewing an actual mining application.

Rechtzigel said Goodhue County would be a willing partner should that occur.

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, who attended Friday's meeting, said he was proud of the Legislature's accomplishments surrounding silica sand mining -- including giving local governments the ability to extend mining moratoriums for another year -- but would not say if he was in favor of extending the moratorium in Goodhue County.

"My approach here is that if (county commissioners) feel we have offered enough value for them to extend the moratorium for another year to get additional information or engage the state level expertise, then that's their decision to make," Schmit said.

"Like a lot of folks in the area," the Red Wing native said, "I look forward to that decision."

Goodhue County Board will hold a public hearing on whethert to extend the mining moratorium 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Government Center.

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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