WINONA — Is the controversial frac sand boom over in Southeast Minnesota, or is it just a lull in an industry that routinely experiences peaks and valleys?
Winona’s commercial harbor is reporting that it shipped no silica sand via barge in 2015. That marks a precipitous fall from nearly 400,000 tons last summer, according to Myron White, the harbor’s program director.
Winona had never shipped a grain of silica sand prior to 2010 when 4,700 tons were transported on the Mississippi River. That figure increased exponentially in subsequent years before peaking at 400,000, and then abruptly stopping.
White said two main factors caused the stoppage: Falling oil prices have decreased demand for the silica sand, which is used to extract oil and natural gas; and the city’s ordinance regulating fugitive dust — a term referring to particular matter that comes primarily from the soil — requires a higher moisture content that is currently desired in the industry.
“Of course it’s going to impact (our bottom line),” White said. “Our tonnage is down about 30 percent, or something in that neighborhood, but we are shipping significantly more of other commodities like fertilizer.”
Western Wisconsin and parts of Southeast Minnesota — including Winona, Houston, Wabasha and Goodhue counties — have been embroiled in silica sand controversies since about 2010. The area’s hard, perfectly round sand provides about 70 percent of the sand considered ideal for the process of fracking, which has been used to extract gas and oil from deep within the earth since 2004, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report.
However, critics say the mining process creates health and environmental concerns.
Some critics celebrated when the Chippewa Sand mine in Bloomer, Wis., laid off its entire 58-member crew while the operation is shut down for at least the next six months. But Land Stewardship Project’s Johanna Rupprecht says that ebb and flow is typical because “it’s basically an arm of the oil and gas industry.”
However, it also affords local critics an opportunity, she said.
“We don’t have the industry breathing down our necks right now, so maybe that’s the time to be a little more proactive,” Rupprecht said. “The level of concern and interest is still very high.”
Local critics cried foul after Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan was hired as a lobbyist for the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council in February 2013 while Red Wing was simultaneously crafting its own silica sand ordinance — a process that began in 2011. Egan initially rejected that criticism, but ended up resigning as mayor a few months after being re-elected.
A few months later, more than 100 people gathered in Winona in what was touted as the largest silica sand protest to date. Dozens of protesters blocked the entrance to CD Corp., which leases Winona’s commercial dock, and 35 people were arrested. Many of those charged with misdemeanor trespassing demanded a trial, during which dozens pleaded not guilty before openly implicating themselves on the witness stand.
More recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources ruling that shut down a Houston County mining operation that was operating within a mile of a trout stream. Also, Houston County failed to approve a new mining ordinance after a three-year moratorium expired earlier this year, falling back to language that’s decades old.
In Houston County last month, an opposition group led by former legislator Ken Tschumper proposed an ordinance amendment that would ban silica sand mining. A public hearing on the proposed ban is scheduled for Sept. 29. It’s expected to draw a large crowd.
“Why would we want to allow silica mining to destroy our beautiful county for a few years when renewable energy (is the new norm)?” Tschumper said. “It’s an idiotic approach.”
Rupprecht said a similar amendment may soon be proposed in Winona County due to another groundswell of opposition. Minnesota Sands is currently conducting an environmental impact statement for a string of silica sand mines in four or five counties, while another mining company has been proposed between Lewiston and Winona.
A consultant also addressed the Stockton City Council in recent weeks, potentially laying the groundwork for another mining proposal.
Rupprecht said 120 people attended a recent viewing of “The Price of Sand” in Stockton as locals prepare for the next big cycle of sand demand.
“That (lull) seems to be pretty typical for this industry, which goes in cycles,” Rupprecht said. “I don’t think anybody is expecting it to be permanent. It will go back up, maybe very soon.”
This article was written by Brett Boese from Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.