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Frac sand mining in is expected to be discussed during the 2013 legislative session.
(Published Jan 7, 2013)
Silica sand mining in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin has surged over the last several years. As some local officials have learned, this “frac” sand is not without controversy, and it is expected to be a major topic of discussion during the 2013 legislative session.
What is “frac” sand?
Silica sand is well-rounded grains of almost pure quartz that have long been mined in the upper Midwest. The strength, size, and shape of the silica grains make it a valuable resource in a variety of industries. The recent emergence of “hydraulic fracturing” has led to a sharp increase in demand for silica sand.
Hydraulic fracturing is a method for extracting oil and gas from bedrock, by injecting a mixture of sand, water, and chemicals into wells under very high pressure. Small cracks are formed in the bedrock, allowing flow of oil and gas into the wells. The silica sand sometimes used to prop open the cracks has become known as “frac” sand.
Where in Minnesota?
Hydraulic fracturing is centered in several regions elsewhere in the United States (western North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas), and not in Minnesota. But the silica sand found in a few large sandstone formations in the upper Midwest including southeastern Minnesota is unique in the world and desirable as to composition, strength, size, and shape.
Silica sand mines typically operate as surface quarries and are generally located in traditionally agricultural or rural areas. Depending on the size and scope of a proposed mining operation, it is likely subject to a variety of state and federal permits and regulations, including the federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act as administered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
A local role
In addition to state and federal regulation, many local governments have ordinances governing nonmetallic mineral extraction. Ordinances may require a proposed mining operation to meet certain standards to obtain local land use permits. Among typical requirements are plans for the operation of the site, and the transport of sand to processing and transit facilities. A reclamation plan may be required, detailing how the site will be improved and restored after the mining activity is complete.
Although some cities may confront mining activity within city limits, silica sand is largely mined in rural areas, typically outside city jurisdiction. By and large, it is the counties and townships in southeastern Minnesota that have been confronted with silica sand mining over the last couple of years. But even cities without mining can face impacts from the associated processing and transportation facilities, as the sand needs to be loaded onto rail or barge systems.
The rise of silica sand mining has generated substantial organized opposition in some communities. Opponents are concerned about the impact of the mining activity on the landscape, and on air quality and water tables. Some are philosophically opposed to enabling the fossil fuel industry. Perhaps the most obvious concern for local governments is the impact on local infrastructure, roads, and bridges of the many trucks hauling silica sand.
The League will continue to monitor this issue during the legislative session. Please watch the Cities Bulletin and Third Reading for updates.
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