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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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