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Column: Statewide silica sand talks start at last: Lawmakers must balance state, local needs

The 2013 legislative session has been dominated by discussion of Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal and the need to restore structural balance to Minnesota's budget.

This past week, though, attention turned to a very important issue for parts of southern Minnesota: silica sand mining.

After many months of grassroots organizing, those concerned about rapid expansion of sand mining operations in the region finally had their day at the Capitol. A joint meeting of the Senate and House Environment committees heard compelling testimony for a stronger, more definitive state role in permitting and regulation.

Busloads of concerned citizens and local leaders let their voices be heard. The message was loud and clear: We have an opportunity to avoid the perils of western Wisconsin; let's not repeat their mistakes.

The conversation continues this coming week in the state Senate.

On Monday, several colleagues and I will introduce legislation that aims to strike an appropriate balance between engaging state agency expertise and empowering local decision-makers. This plan is based upon conversations with a wide range of stakeholders, including concerned citizens, local elected leaders, state agency officials and representatives of the sand mining industry.

In particular, the plan calls for:

• A generic environmental impact statement to address a number of unanswered questions plaguing the local permitting process. The statement will examine, among others questions, certain adverse water, air, transportation, and economic impacts caused by sand mining.

Importantly, this process will help us identify specific state permitting standards.

• A "Southern Minnesota Silica Sand Board" that will bring local decision-makers and state agency experts together to establish a regional model ordinance -- a basic permitting standard upon which individual communities can build.

This regional approach will allow for a broader view of sand mining impacts. Just as area watersheds and aquifers cross county lines, sand mined in one jurisdiction but transported through another affects us all.

• A technical and scientific advisory team comprised of state agency experts will be made available to our local governments as they weigh the benefits and risks of various permit applications.

State agencies have resources and expertise that local governments lack. Where warranted, it only makes sense that we bring these folks together early in the permitting process.

In addition, the plan provides local governments with certain taxing powers to help recoup the full costs of a potentially expanded sand mining industry in the region. Importantly, local governments will be given the authority to extend local moratoria while the GEIS and regional silica sand board proceed.

Despite my hard work, I understand that no plan is ever perfect -- and I'll welcome ongoing feedback as the bill moves through the committee process. This coming week we'll likely consider the merits of a statewide moratorium, as well as particular state permitting standards known to us now.

After several weeks of informational meetings and overviews, Senate committees are just beginning to hear bills. It's about time we get this important conversation started in St Paul.