The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 14, 2013

DFL lawmaker: Compromise reached on frac sand regulations

By Elizabeth Dunbar and Stephanie Hemphill
Minnesota Public Radio News

---- — The lawmaker who has pushed this year for tougher state regulation of the frac sand mining industry on Tuesday said DFL legislative leaders have reached a compromise on the legislation.

Lawmakers have agreed to create a new Department of Natural Resources permit for companies hoping to mine silica sand in certain sensitive areas in southeastern Minnesota, said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing. Schmit said the regulations will be part of the spending bill that covers natural resources, the environment and agriculture.

Schmit and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr had been pushing to prohibit sand mining within one mile of a trout stream or spring in the "Paleozoic Plateau Ecological Section" of the state, which includes Dakota, Goodhue, Houston, Fillmore, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona counties. The compromise expected to gain conference committee approval would instead require a hydrological study and DNR permit for any mine within a mile of a trout stream but not springs, Schmit said.

"What this gives us is stricter scrutiny in the most sensitive regions of southeastern Minnesota," Schmit said. "If that study proves that mining will have no or limited impact on our waters, then we can move forward with the DNR permit, so I think this is a good compromise. I do think it gives notice that the areas around our trout streams are going to be watched very closely and creates an incentive for mining to take place elsewhere."

Schmit and DNR officials have pointed to geological maps showing plenty of silica sand deposits located more than a mile from trout streams. An MPR News analysis of proposed mining sites in southeastern Minnesota found that at least 10 of them were located within a mile of a trout stream or spring.

Besides the new permit requirement for some mines, Schmit said the bill also includes language setting up a technical advisory team that would create model ordinances for local governments overseeing mining proposals. The legislation also would give the DNR, Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency rulemaking authority for permits related to sand mining and would allow local governments to extend local moratoria on sand mining by up to two years. Schmit said he expects all of those provisions to make it into the bill Gov. Mark Dayton signs.

"We've gotten a lot accomplished this session. It's not exactly what we proposed, but as I've maintained from day one, I'm not married to any particular provision as long as in the end we get it right," he said. "We fought as hard as we could for what we thought was right, and I think the package we're leaving with is a pretty strong one."

The Land Stewardship Project and many southeastern Minnesota groups had hoped state lawmakers would adopt a one-year statewide moratorium on frac sand mining while the impacts were studied more thoroughly. That proposal stumbled, especially after Dayton said he opposed a moratorium.

A House proposal that would place a tax on silica sand production also appears to be losing steam. The tax won't be part of the overall tax bill, said state Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

Skoe, who chairs the Senate Tax Commiittee, said that as it's currently written, the tax could drive business out of the state and add wear and tear to roads at the same time.

"If you do a tax on production, and then do a tax on the processing, and have this compounding effect, you potentially could be encouraging mines that are just trucking out of our state and damaging the roads," he said. "You don't want to do that; people don't have an understanding of the way to do that yet, and I think we'll spend the summer trying to figure this out."

Skoe said the tax measure needs more study. It was introduced in the House but not in the Senate. It's still possible it could be added to the game and fish bill, or the omnibus environment bill.