Frac sand debate takes center stage in Winona County

Frac sand debate takes center stage in Winona County

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WINONA, Minn. — The debate over whether to ban frac sand in Winona County took center stage Thursday in the city.

The Tau Center on Winona State University’s west campus — a venue selected specifically because of the interest in the issue, with the meeting moved from the small county government center — was filled Thursday night for the county planning commission’s first step in discussing the county’s proposed frac sand ban.

The public hearing was strictly to receive public comment, with any final decision left to the county board in late summer or early fall, but the groundswell of support for a ban was immediately evident Thursday.

Prior to the meeting, more than 50 people gathered outside the meeting with signs and chants to show support for the ban.

Tessa Schweitzer, a St. Charles resident, said at the gathering that ban supporters were looking to repeat their success at stopping a sand processing facility near St. Charles two years ago.

“We are saying no to the frac sand industry at the county level,” Schweitzer said. “We should not have to sacrifice our health, safety and quality of life for the profit of the few.”

Those pushing the ban forward have concerns with almost every aspect of the frac sand industry, from business practices to cumulative affects.

Lynnea Pfohl, who was also protesting prior to the meeting, said that as a Homer Township resident she wanted the benefits of the land to continue to be available to her children and grandchildren.

“In order for this to happen we must have new policies at all levels,” Pfohl said. “Clean renewable energy, and a productive, replenishing environment must be the way we go forward.”

Dozens of people spoke in the meeting. The speakers for the ban outnumbered those against it by wide margins, but both were represented as the discussion moves forward toward a potential fall vote by the county board.

Those against the ban mostly spoke about the use of regulation, and about not using picking and choosing between uses of the fine, round sand that’s been favored for fracking operations in Texas and elsewhere in the country.

Mark Clark of Rollingstone said the ban would be “discriminating against a legal use.”

“Winona was settled many years ago by people using natural resources in the area … sand is a valuable natural resource,” Clark said. “I believe sand can be mined in the county without being detrimental to other natural resources.”

Others said that regulation would be possible, and the full ban would be damaging to industries other than just mining for frac sand.

Glen Groth, Winona County Farm Bureau president, said that while a ban would be fine in terms of fees assessed for extra staff time or road repair, and extra conditions made to address water safety would be welcomed by farmers and developers, a ban would be overkill.

“It’s not reasonable to just ban a land use before it occurs in this county,” Groth said.

He was referring to the fact that only one sand mine has been approved in recent years in Winona County, with the mine small by comparison and the sand being used not for fracking but instead for animal bedding and other uses. While Trempealeau County and other western Wisconsin counties have seen an explosive and extensive growth of the frac sand mining and processing industry, Winona County so far has seen a minimal effect.

Those against the ban said that the industry could bring additional jobs and help the rural economy.

Arguing for the ban, other speakers said health risks, environmental problems, degradation to roads and the volatility of the oil business were too much to risk.

Kaitlyn O’Connor said the industry wouldn’t fit in with the ethics of Winona County.

“Frac sand mining goes against the very character of our community,” O’Connor said. “We are not the kind of people in Winona County who sell the earth beneath our feet.”

Potential water pollution from both the mining and the processing of the sand after its extraction was also at the forefront of the arguments for the ban, as was the predicted unfeasibility of regulation.

Margaret Lambert said the ban should be recommended over regulation, because the county has not yet fully determined whether or how well regulation would work, where money for it would come from, or whether the county would have to pay for extra employees to inspect and permit mines.

“I don’t think we have the answers to many of these questions,” Lambert said.

The proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance will be tabled until July 21 for more discussion, and the commission set August 8 as a date for discussion and making their recommendation to the board.

The motion was passed 7-1, with planning commission member Don Evanson dissenting.

The commission, which serves in this capacity as an advisory board, has 60 days to make a recommendation to the Winona County Board of Commissioners regarding the amendment.

The board voted 4-1 June 14 to send the issue to the county planning commission. After the commission’s recommendation, the county board will make a final decision.

Opponents of frac sand mining have been advocating for the ban for several months through a variety of methods, including speaking regularly at county board meetings. In response, the county kicked off the process April 26 when the board instructed planning staff and the county attorney to develop language for a ban on silica sand mining related to its use in fracking operations elsewhere in the county.

The amendment was drafted by Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman and draws from several examples, including Goodhue County’s Florence Township’s ban on silica sand mining for fracking and the Land Stewardship Project’s proposed language for a ban created earlier in the spring.

Sonneman’s legal analysis made several additions to the initial language, including making an argument for the amendment as it relates to the values in the county’s comprehensive plan and the purpose of the county’s zoning ordinance.

It also clarifies the distinctions between restrictions on different types of mineral excavation, extraction and land alteration by defining some as commercial minerals compared to industrial minerals.

For those who can’t attend Thursday’s meeting written comments can also be sent to the county’s planning department at any point through Aug. 1.

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