MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota plans to release a draft set of model standards Friday to help communities struggling to regulate the boom in mining for silica sand, which oil and gas drillers use for hydraulic fracturing.
They're meant to give smaller governments a toolbox of approaches they can tailor to cope with sand mining's effects on the environment, public health and roads and bridges. The Environmental Quality Board plans to post the draft on its website Friday to start a 30-day public comment period, and to hold a public meeting Wednesday to discuss details.
"We're trying to make sure local decision-makers have the tools they need to best address the concerns in their communities," said Will Seuffert, the EQB's executive director.
The voluntary standards are among several steps the 2013 Legislature ordered to address silica sand mining, which Minnesota has regulated mostly on the local level so far. State agencies are also drafting regulations — which will have force of law — to say when projects trigger formal environmental reviews, to deal with air quality issues near silica sand operations, and to update state requirements for reclaiming closed mines. The Department of Natural Resources has already begun requiring permits for facilities within a mile of designated trout streams. The DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are also creating a silica sand advisory committee.
The drilling industry considers the silica sand in the soft sandstone under western Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota and some other parts of the state to be among the best available. The pure, round grains have the ideal size and hardness for propping open the underground cracks created by hydraulic fracturing and allowing oil and gas to flow out. And the deposits lie close to the surface, making them cheaper to mine. Minnesota currently has nine silica and mines or processing facilities, compared with over 100 in Wisconsin, where looser regulations and a better-positioned railroad network helped the industry get off to a faster start.
But many residents and local officials in both states object. They fear health problems from silica dust, which can cause cancer under certain circumstances. They also raise concerns about water supplies, agriculture, tourism and the wear on roads and bridges and other disruptions from heavy truck traffic of sand mining. Common concerns in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota also include protecting the scenic landscape and the region's fragile geology.