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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.

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