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Minnesota Communities Declare Independence from Frac-Sand Mining
Last month, I visited Wisconsin’s booming silica sand mining region and saw sandstone bluffs strip-mined for sturdy quartz sand that’s essential for the horizontal hydraulic fracturing process used to extract oil and gas from underground shale formations. I saw how residents there had little protection against silica dust exposure since Wisconsin has no regulatory standards for this relatively new mining industry.
After Wisconsin, I headed across the Mississippi River to the southeastern corner of Minnesota. The industry is pretty active here too, with several existing mines and loading facilities and many more proposed, but so is the citizenry, which has been pushing the state to regulate frac-sand mines and processing facilities.
While I was there, I met with the Land Stewardship Project’s (LSP) staff and members from four counties across Minnesota’s Driftless Area. LSP has been fighting for sustainable agriculture and communities in Minnesota for over 30 years, and has been warily watching the boom in frac-sand mining across the river in Wisconsin. After traveling through the same counties I visited last month, lifelong resident of Winona County, Minnesota and LSP organizer Johanna Rupprecht said, “What I saw in Wisconsin made me even more certain that this industry is absolutely wrong for our rural communities.”
Johanna was not alone. Everywhere we went, Minnesotans were determined to protect their communities’ health and environment from frac-sand mining.
In Wabasha, MN, city council member Lynn Schoen described the city’s efforts to prevent a new frac-sand transportation loading facility that aims to take advantage of the town’s location by the rail line adjacent to the Mississippi River, which would carry frac-sand north and west to the booming Bakken Shale in North Dakota and into Canada. Last week, the small town was sued by a trucking company that wants to haul sand to the loading facility. The facility developer, Superior Sand Systems of Canada, is also threatening to sue. Both companies claim that the proposal to ship frac sand should be exempt from environmental review because railroads are regulated federally. The town of Wabasha maintains that it has the right to require a permit for the influx of as many as 600 daily truck trips through town.
Wabasha is home to lovely bluffs terracing down to a bend in the river that attracts bald eagles, golden eagles, and a hundred thousand tourists annually to the National Eagle Center to see rescued bald eagles up close and to watch wild eagles hunting fish in the wide river. Schoen is very concerned about the impacts of the frac-sand facility, with hundreds of daily truck trips, noise from trucks and trains and the ubiquitous silica dust blowing, on the town’s existing tourist economy.
A similar frac-sand facility lies 30 miles south in the town of Winona, MN, which is now home to a new landmark known as "Mt. Frac.” The Winona facility includes both rail loading as well as barges on the river which carry frac-sand south to the Barnett and Eagle Ford Shales in Texas. Dozens of protestors have been arrested at Mt. Frac in several actions since early 2012. The state does not have a health impact study for silica in the air from such a sand loading operation for either humans or eagles.
From Wabasha, we traveled to Winona, Houston and Fillmore counties, meeting with residents campaigning to slow or stop the demand for silica sand from destroying the region’s picturesque sandstone bluffs.
In Winona County’s Saratoga Township seven separate silica sand mines are proposed, with five of them grouped on County Road 6. The concentration of mining in one area limits impacts in the rest of the township. But for neighbors along County Road 6, including nearby Amish farmers, the mines would mean rapid industrialization, increased truck traffic and the health impacts of quartz silica sand blowing through the neighborhood.
Many Minnesota residents who have visited frac-sand mines in Wisconsin or have heard about the negative impacts are concerned that that local government zoning ordinances aren’t strong enough to keep up with the pace and scale of the frac-sand mining boom. So they’ve been pressuring the state government to take action.
During the last legislative session, a diverse collection of local government officials called on Gov. Mark Dayton to implement a moratorium in Minnesota on new industrial silica sand mining and processing facilities until an in-depth study was done on the cumulative impacts of the industry. They asked for regulations that would ensure that trout streams, wildlife and communities were protected from impacts.
Minnesota didn’t pass a moratorium, but in May the state legislature passed a law with strong rules that advanced the interests of Minnesotans over the frac-sand mining industry.
Minnesota now prohibits frac-sand mines within a mile of a trout stream unless granted a permit by the state Department of Natural Resources. The state will soon be setting overall environmental quality rules for the frac-sand industry, including rules for silica dust management and an ambient air quality standard. frac-sand mines will also be required to post a reclamation bond and will have to follow a statewide reclamation standard.
Most importantly, under the new rules, local governments can enact moratoria on frac-sand mining and facilities until 2015. In Minnesota, local governments are arguing strenuously to maintain local control over large-scale silica mining for fracking within their communities. Since the state confers power to counties, townships and cities to pass zoning ordinances that are in the best interests of each community, many communities already had moratoria on frac-sand mining in place. This new law will help build momentum in counties that want to ban frac-sand mining altogether.
Although the state didn’t put a moratorium on frac-sand mining, it did empower local governments to slow or stop the impacts of this harmful industry. And that, in itself, is heartening.
Superior Sand Systems has not yet sued the town of Wabasha, though it has threatened to do so. However, a local trucking company has sued the town. This article has been corrected to reflect this information.
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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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