Quantcast
Fracking

Huge Victory: Winona County, Minnesota Bans Frac Sand Mining

By Jim Gurley

Winona County, Minnesota has placed a total ban on the strip-mining of frac sand, a necessary component of fracking. This is thought to be the first such countywide ban in the nation.

The Winona County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 22 voted 3-2 to ban the mining, processing or trans-loading of frac sand in the county, which is located in the environmentally delicate and beautiful Mississippi River bluff lands of southeast Minnesota.


Frac sand being transported by barge in the Upper Mississippi River between Iowa and Wisconsin. Ric Zarwell

Frac sand is an essential ingredient in fracking, which fractures shale deep underground. The frac sand (also known as silica sand) props open those fractures so that bubbles of oil or gas can flow to the surface. Fracking, a type of extreme energy extraction, cannot take place without this special silica sand. (Although there are more expensive alternatives such as imported ceramic beads or resin-coated sand.)

The sand we're familiar with (sand boxes or beach sand) is angular and variable in size, whereas frac sand is almost pure quartz and must be spherical, extremely crush-resistant and uniform in size.

The best type of this valuable sand is found in the Upper Midwest, with Wisconsin holding 75 percent of the nation's frac sand market. But the industry has been somewhat stymied in Minnesota due to intense and organized citizen opposition by such groups as Winona County's Citizens Against Silica Mining (CASM) and Minnesota's Land Stewardship Project which spearheaded the ban campaign.

Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin, October 2013. Ted Auch

This ban applies only to rural areas, not to the city of Winona—which already has a half-dozen operations, including a mine within the city limits. City leaders, working behind the scenes, enabled the industry to get a substantial foothold in Winona in 2011 prior to public discussion, debate or significant local media coverage.

As the central transport hub (rail and barge) for the region, the city of Winona has seen intense controversy and protest. Citizens took direct action in 2012 when they dumped frac sand on the steps of city hall. In 2013, more than 100 people blocked the trucks with their bodies and shut down two large operations simultaneously, resulting in 35 arrests.

Citizens shut down two frac-sand facilities April 29, 2013 in the city of Winona, Minnesota, resulting in 35 arrests. Here citizens block frac-sand trucks from unloading at the city's port on the Mississippi River. Andrew Link / Winona Daily News

Ban supporters cite several concerns. Frac sand is a known carcinogen leading to cancer and silicosis (a fatal and incurable lung disease). Frac-sand trucks emit diesel exhaust, which is linked to lung cancer. Chemicals used in settling ponds are concerning, as are the threats to groundwater from the leaching of heavy metals.

Citizens block trucks carrying frac sand during the 2013 Winona, Minnesota protest by locking arms at the Hemker processing facility.

People near frac sand operations suffer a loss of a sense of place, as entire bluffs are obliterated with mountain-top removal; stress and sickness from the 24/7 bright stadium lights and noise, and the hundreds of 80,000-pound semis that pass their houses daily.

Economically, tourism dollars are jeopardized, property values are often devalued for those who refuse to sell, roads are degraded or destroyed, and taxpayers are burdened with the added costs of monitoring and enforcement. (The industry has often flagrantly ignored regulations.)

When applying for a permit, the industry promises "reclamation" of the land afterwards, sometimes saying it will be better than before for native plants or crops. But experts warn that soil is a living organism that takes many years to form. And extractive industries have a history of declaring bankruptcy once they've taken the resource, leaving the residents to deal with the resulting problem.

The two commissioners who opposed a ban warned of impending lawsuits, saying that regulating the industry made more sense than banning it. They offered an alternative ordinance that would have limited the number of mines. But the county attorney, Karin Sonneman found that such a ban, with proper findings of fact, would be defensible in court.

Ban opponents also cited property rights, saying that taking away the possibility for a landowner to strip-mine constituted a "taking" under the U.S. Constitution, and interfered with interstate commerce. County Attorney Sonneman disagreed.

"I cannot control anyone who wants to sue this board, but I can certainly make darn well sure that the board's decisions are supported by the law and the facts," she said.

An average of 80 percent of citizen comments received on this issue favored a ban. Commissioner Greg Olson said the case is strong. Referring to an industry attorney who threatened a lawsuit, Olson said, "I'd put more weight on the public who has spoken at that podium ... than I do on a letter from an attorney in Minneapolis. We represent the citizens of Winona County as a whole and I think they've been clear."

Johanna Rupprecht, an organizer with the Land Stewardship Project, reflected on the victory. "I'm really pleased that a majority of the county board listened to the will of the citizens and followed through on passing the ban even in the face of threats and pressure of outside interests," Rupprecht concluded.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Popular
Pxhere

Trump Power Plant Plan Will Significantly Increase CO2 Pollution

The Trump administration is expected on Tuesday to propose a major rollback of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama's signature climate policy.

The replacement will relax rules for coal-fired plants and will very likely increase air pollution and planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Global warming in Iceland. Getty Images

Arctic Warming Amplifies Extreme Weather Events Globally: Wildfires, Flooding Likely to Be More Severe

Warming in the Arctic is causing the jet stream, a belt of air held "up" around the Arctic by the temperature difference between the Arctic and warmer climates, to weaken and slow.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
DWalker44 / Getty Images

Tons of Plastic Trash Enter the Great Lakes Every Year – Where Does It Go?

By Matthew J. Hoffman

Awareness is rising worldwide about the scourge of ocean plastic pollution, from Earth Day 2018 events to the cover of National Geographic magazine. But few people realize that similar concentrations of plastic pollution are accumulating in lakes and rivers. One recent study found microplastic particles—fragments measuring less then five millimeters—in globally sourced tap water and beer brewed with water from the Great Lakes.

Keep reading... Show less
Science
Gorancakmazovic / Getty Images

Blotting Out the Sun to Save the Earth? Seriously?

By Jeff Turrentine

Science fiction doesn't always stay fictional. Space exploration, robots and self-driving cars are just a few of the modern-day wonders that once existed only as plot devices or fantastical theories. Our capacity for turning science-fictional notions into the stuff of everyday life has grown with each new generation of scientists and microchips, such that more and more ideas previously deemed too far "out there" are now actually here, or at least technologically plausible.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
Flames of the Simi Valley fire ravage a Southern California mountain side on Oct. 29, 2012. U.S. Air Force / Senior Master Sgt. Dennis W. Goff

'Hothouse Earth' Co-Author Says 'People Will Look Back on 2018 as the Year When Climate Reality Hit'

By Jessica Corbett

Amid a flurry of "breathless headlines" about warnings in a new study that outlines a possible "Hothouse Earth" scenario, one co-author optimistically expressed his belief that "people will look back on 2018 as the year when climate reality hit."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Kodachrome25 / Getty Images

Roof-to-Garden: How to Irrigate with Rainwater

By Brian Barth

The average American household uses about 320 gallons of water per day, a third for irrigation and other outdoor uses. Collecting the water flowing down your downspouts in rainstorms so you can use it to irrigate in dry periods is often touted as a simple way to cut back. But setting up a functional rainwater irrigation system—beyond the ubiquitous 55-gallon barrels under the downspout, which won't irrigate much more than a flower bed or two—is a fairly complicated DIY project.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
A family wears face masks as they walk through the smoke filled streets after the Thomas wildfire swept through Ventura, California on Dec. 6, 2017. MARK RALSTON / AFP / Getty Images

How to Protect Your Children From Wildfire Smoke

By Cecilia Sierra-Heredia

We're very careful about what our kids eat, but what about the air they breathe?

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Hero Images / Getty Images

Study: Children Have Better Nutrition When They Live Near Forests

Spending time in nature is known to boost mental and emotional health. Now, a new global study has found that children in 27 developing nations tend to have more diverse diets and better nutrition when they live near forests.

The paper, published Wednesday in Science Advances, provides evidence that forest conservation can be an important tool in promoting better nutrition in developing countries, rather than clear-cutting forests for more farmland.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!