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home : government : government November 24, 2015

6/27/2013 2:08:00 PM
County approves new mining ordinance

By Paul Martin

By a 3 to 2 vote at the end of a four-hour debate, Goodhue County Board approved a new Mining Ordinance on June 18. No decision was taken on whether to extend the current moratorium on permits for mining, which will expire early in September.

The revised ordinance was the fruit of almost two years of work by the Board, the Planning Advisory Committee (PAC), and a specially convened Mining Committee under the chairmanship of Lisa Hanni, County Land Use Management Director. The thorough review was prompted by the 2011 purchase of land in Hay Creek by an out-of-state silica sand mining company.

Silica sand has become central to extracting oil and gas from shale beds by fracturing rock (hence the terms 'fracing' and 'frac sand'), and some of the highest quality sand is found here in the Upper Mississippi valley. Alarmed that the huge mines and transfer stations that have sprung up almost overnight in areas of Western Wisconsin might devastate the bluffs and fields of Goodhue County, residents organized and lobbied for an outright ban, or at least much stronger controls. The County determined to get ahead of the game by strengthening its ordinance to cope with large-scale industrial sand mining. Almost every speaker praised the hard work of the staff and Committee, and agreed they had produced a fine report.

No Agreement on Benefits and Downside

Although silica sand has been used for centuries, for example in glass making, the explosive growth in mining in the last five years means that almost all the statistics about benefits and losses are disputed. There may be large windfalls for landowners whose property lies atop this new "gold." However, what is becoming clear is that, for the average citizen, the downside may be greater. Some well-paid jobs will be created, but it is not clear how many, or how long they will last. Meanwhile, there is a long list of possible adverse effects.

Large mines use millions of gallons of water, and use chemicals for cleaning which may pollute groundwater. County roads not built for heavy truck traffic will take a pounding - one medium-sized mine can generate 600 truck trips per day, with all the noise and exhaust that involves. Silica sand is not like beach sand; it can cause cancer, asthma and silicosis if not strictly contained. Nobody can reliably forecast what the effect will be on the county's primary employers, agriculture and tourism.

Even harder to predict is the effect on property values, or the priceless heritage of the county's natural beauty. These threats were in the mind of the 80 or so who came to make their views heard. Not one resident spoke in favor of silica mining. It was left to Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel to voice his strong opposition to an outright ban, saying "Landowners should have the right to petition their government for the ability to use their land as they see fit."

"Learn from Us" -

Winona Residents

Concerned Winona residents shared their woes, as the town becomes a major transfer point for sand to rail or river transport. "Hundreds of trucks cross the bridge into town every day," said Jim Gourlay. "Twelve more mines are ready to go, and that could mean 6,000 more truck trips per day on our rural roads. One auto dealer has complained that customers could not tell the color of the vehicles on his lot because of the silica dust from passing trucks!"

Mary Lou Stambaugh, retired RN, fears her town of Lake City could face the same problems. "Lake City lies between the highway and the railroad," she said. "Our homes, schools and nursing homes will all be within a few blocks of this harmful dust."

Although the area near Red Wing is likely to see sand mining first, the rest of the county also contains large areas of suitable sand. Rich deposits lie near Randolph, south and east of Cannon Falls, especially in the Belle Creek watershed, and in an area south of Zumbrota and east of Pine Island.

Would a Ban Stand up

in Court?

Several demanded an outright ban on large-scale mines in the county, with safeguards for the small, locally-owned aggregate mine. Most, but not all, experts and attorneys do not believe such a ban would hold up in the event of a court case.

Bill Mavity, an attorney who is a Pepin County Supervisor, believes a ban is defensible. Commissioner Ron Allen would like to ban silica sand mining, but does not believe it can be done. County Attorney Steve Betcher also believes that a strong ordinance that controls large-scale mining, and keeps it away from the most sensitive areas, is the way to go. Interviewed by the Beacon, long-time PAC and Mining Committee member Howard Stenerson quoted the example of a Midwest county which passed a total ban but, when it was overturned in court, found itself powerless to exert any control over mining.

Retired attorney David Williams spoke of the strong ordinance he wrote, which has been adopted in Fillmore County. This allows extraction but not processing, with no chemical use on site. Only five working mines are allowed at one time. They must be less than 50 acres in total footprint, and reclamation must take place once 25 acres have been worked.

Many speakers complained that the proposed Goodhue ordinance is not directive enough. They believed that the report too often uses the words "may"and "should" rather than 'shall' or "shall not."

"There is a one-size-fits-all approach that has left a lot of ambiguity," said Amy Nelson, a Hay Creek resident, and a leader in the "Save the Bluffs" group. "It leaves decisions at the mercy of whoever is in power at the time. We need more definite standards in place."

The ordinance also refers often to "best standards." Larry Salako of Red Wing had researched the "best standards" with the Minnesota Pollution Agency (MPA). "The acceptable noise level is 130 decibels," he said. "That is the equivalent of standing 50 feet from a military jet taking off from an aircraft carrier!"

Stenerson defended the use of this language in the ordinance. "It gives us flexibility to adapt what we require to different circumstances, and to work with better standards as they evolve," he said. He also believes the ordinance is strong enough to prevent the nightmare scenario of County staff being overwhelmed by a large number of applications to mine being filed together. "We require a large amount of data and monitoring upfront, before the application is even looked at," he said. "That will slow the process down to where we can handle it."

"Not Enough Public Health or Economic Input"

Roseanne Grosso, herself a Mining Committee member, and Commissioner Jim Bryant, among others, noted that two previously flagged topics were not adequately addressed in the report. The first was the impact on the community and the economy, especially tourism. The second was to define the difference between small aggregate quarries and large sand mining operations. Bryant urged an extension of the moratorium to give time to fix these omissions. "I agree with Senator Matt Schmit," said Bryant. "We should take the time to get it right."

In the last session, the State Legislature worked hard to enact laws allowing Counties to impose stronger controls - despite strenuous opposition from the Iron Range representatives. Many paid tribute to Senator Schmit for being a leader in this effort. State agencies have been mandated to produce updated standards by January 1, 2014. To enable counties to use these standards, they have been given authority to impose one more 12-month moratorium.

"You've Improved It, but you Need to Do More"

After the Public Hearing, Commissioners weighed in. Bryant moved to extend the moratorium; Allen seconded. Betcher advised that the Notice of Public Hearing had not included that topic, so the proposal should be tabled. There were some questions about what was covered, and how. Commissioner Rich Samuelson asked Hanni, "How did you address the public health concerns?" Hanni responded, "We require control and monitoring of dust, air and water quality."

Commissioner Ted Seifert said, "What I am hearing today is - 'You've improved it, but you need to do more.' We need to validate the work done by passing the new ordinance. That will not prevent any future changes." Bryant was still not ready to pass the ordinance, before looking at the issues he had raised, and some new ideas. "I want to look at the Fillmore County ordinance," he said. "I had not heard of that before today."

Seifert, with Rechtzigel, then moved to table the motion for a further moratorium. That passed 5 to 0. He then moved to approve the new ordinance, seconded again by Rechtzigel. That passed by 3 to 2, Bryant and Allen voting No. Lastly, Rechtzigel, as Board Chair, voiced concern that work was being completed at Committee and PAC level, then grinding to a halt at the Board. It was agreed to set up a meeting between Bryant and Allen and the Mining Committee, so all concerns can be put on the table, and a decision on a further moratorium taken before the current one expires in September.

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