Demand for silica sand has grown with the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in oil and gas production in western North Dakota and other states.
Minnesota lawmakers began drilling into the state's silica sand mining Tuesday with hours of testimony from advocates and opponents, the first phase of a potential fight over what role the state should play in overseeing the booming industry.
Critics came by the busload to the Capitol for a joint hearing of the Senate and House environment committees. One by one, concerned citizens from southeastern Minnesota asked lawmakers for a statewide study of health and environmental impacts; a temporary moratorium on new mines and processing facilities; and establish better statewide oversight and regulation.
So far, the issue has been left to local governments. Representatives from companies that run silica mines in Minnesota said state regulation would be too much of a burden, and said city and local governments can better oversee silica mining in their own backyards.
"We feel they are the best suited to decide the local land issues," said Mike Caron, director of land use affairs for Tiller Corp., which recently got permits from North Branch to build a sand drying facility. "They are each unique, and each of them should be studied on their own so that all of the local issues and concerns can be dealt with."
Democratic Sen. Matt Schmit of Red Wing said after the hearing that he plans to introduce a bill Thursday that would broaden the state's oversight and call for a study.
Sen. John Marty, a Roseville Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, backs that proposal. He said a statewide study may require putting a hold on permits for new mines. Schmit's bill may get a hearing as soon as next week.
"There are so many unknowns. Rather than blindly go ahead, let's make sure we do it right," Marty said.
Demand for silica sand has grown with the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in oil and gas production in western North Dakota and other states. Drillers mix the sand with water and other chemicals and pump it down into wells, propping open cracks so that oil and natural gas can flow out. The hills and bluffs of western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota hold easy-to-mine deposits of highly pure silica sand that is the ideal size, shape and hardness for fracking.
Caron, of Tiller Corp., said his company started mining silica sand in 2010 as a way to expand struggling sales.
The "sand rush" has been roaring in Wisconsin for several years. Opponents of the silica mining industry said lawmakers need only look east to see the cost of not stepping in.
Pat Popple said the silica mines are "not a pretty scene" in Chippewa Falls, Wis., where she lives. She urged Minnesota lawmakers to ensure they know enough about the environmental and economic costs of the mines.
The documented dangers of workplace exposure to fresh silica dust include silicosis and lung cancer. But opponents said there hasn't been enough research into the potential health effects of silica dust on everyday citizens — not just from the mines themselves, but from processing and transport facilities, too.
Local governments don't have the resources or expertise to do that kind of research, said David Williams, a township supervisor for Preble Township in Fillmore County.
"The conflict is real and it is growing," said Lynn Schoen, who is on Wabasha's City Council. She said she worries about the impact on the city's tourism industry from increased truck traffic — as many as 600 trips a day, in and out of the silica sand mine, she said.
The experience in Wisconsin shows that mining operations generate heavy truck traffic that affects communities.
"The state needs to get involved now to help us protect our home," Schoen said.
Several state agencies handle some permits for mining companies. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues air quality permits. The Department of Natural Resources oversees how much water companies use to clean their silica sand.
Combined with the land-use permits and other regulation from local governments, Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, argued that the silica sand mining industry "is one of the most heavily regulated industries that we have in this state."
Bobby King, an organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, said the state needs to respond to local governments' calls for help.
"We need to get out in front of it and develop those standards now," he said.