As Silica Mining Captures Midwest, Mayors’ Relationship With Big Oil Exposed
MINNEAPOLIS – It’s a movement driven by the nation’s most influential corporations, whose marketing techniques aren’t geared toward the sale of their product, but the sale of the industry itself.
Oil, an always-controversial resource, has emerged as the United States’ future domestic energy source, carrying a promise of prosperity, jobs, lower prices at the pump and independence. The International Energy Agency (IEA) claims that the U.S. will meet that energy independence by 2020, yet claims the streak won’t last.
At what expense will the U.S. allow for this short-lived boom?
Hydraulic fracturing is a practice by which water, silica sand and carcinogenic chemicals are shot into the earth to break up and extract oil hidden deep beneath the surface.
Those living in oil-rich states have been engulfed in a battle to combat water contamination. In Colorado, residents have been subject to more than 2,700 spills since 2008 and are still fighting for widespread regulations on the industry. Communities, frustrated with the state’s lack of action, have moved ahead with their own moratoriums, which are promised to be challenged by state government.
While the focus has largely surrounded the fracking process, the peripheral components of the invasive practice slowly have crept into residential communities of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Those who had never heard of frac sand mining are finding themselves in a fierce battle against oil and mining companies.
They reside on land rich with silica, and have now been catapulted into a debate that, for them, is more about protecting family and community from silica-related disease and the destruction of their beloved natural surroundings than it is engaging in the energy debate.
Main Street takes on the industry
Amy Nelson is a retired college provost living in Hay Creek, Minn., a small town just outside the city of Red Wing, Minn. She lives in a residential community comprised of six households, all of which share the passion to enjoy life in the pleasant bluff community — a place where the stars are visible at night and the only sounds heard are those of native animals.
She didn’t start out as an anti-fracking activist, nor had she concerned herself with health and environmental issues relating to silica sand mining. But when she and her neighbors discovered in 2011 that a big oil company had purchased land adjacent to their homes, the alarms were sounded.
She began to do her research, and what she discovered horrified her.
The area proposed to be mined near her home was on a bluff, home to two watersheds and a state-protected trout stream. Bluffs are technically protected from development in Minnesota, but there was one snag: A road had been constructed through the bluff, which, according to new county rules, created a loophole for possible development, silica sand mines included.
Nelson was concerned about contamination of the waterways considering she and others in her community live miles from the Mississippi River. The potential dangers posed from silica sand particles also raised red flags. It’s not uncommon to see sand deposits at and near silica sand mines — the health implications are not fully researched. The proposed mine would also come with the noise of trucks and mining, along with bright lights around the clock.
Knowledge of the industry inspired her and fellow community members to form “Save the Bluffs,” an organization dedicated to doing just that.
“It’s about protecting the land we love,” she told Mint Press News during a recent visit to the area. “You should be able to sit at night and see the stars. It’s a tiny thing, but for many of us, it’s a huge deal.”
Save The Bluffs was successful in petitioning the county to issue a temporary moratorium, which was renewed through August 2013.
While the moratorium was a huge victory, it came with an expiration date.
Nelson and fellow community members are concerned that influences within the U.S. oil industry, hungry for silica sand, will reverse the board’s decision. Nothing is certain, especially when working against an industry whose pockets are much deeper than those of Goodhue County residents.
This is why she and others are lobbying the state to issue a moratorium and conduct a General Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) that would give cities and counties throughout Minnesota the knowledge needed to permit or outlaw frac sand mining in their communities.
Exposed to silica through mayor/industry lobbyist
Red Wing, Minn. is part of a four-city tourism partnership aimed at promoting the beautiful bluffs of the region. In the summer months, it serves as a site of tourism for those exploring Frontenac State Park, located on the Mississippi River, and the natural beauty of surrounding bluffs.
Despite the work done by Nelson and neighbors, most people living in the beautiful city of 16,000 weren’t familiar with the silica sand mining industry.
“Most of Red Wing hasn’t paid attention,” Nelson said.
That changed when news leaked that their mayor, Dennis Egan, was chief lobbyist for the Minnesota silica sand mining industry.
That conflict of interest, once discovered, spurred a conversation in the southeastern Red Wing community about the industry and the likelihood of it making its way to the region, with the help of insider knowledge obtained by the mayor.
After weeks of controversy, Egan recently indicated he will step down from his position, although he gave no official reason for his impending resignation.
During a February city council meeting, Egan addressed a packed house of concerned community members, claiming his moonlighting lobbyist position didn’t create a conflict of interest, as the City of Red Wing wasn’t home to operating silica mining operations.
But it is home to silica sands — plenty of it.
A map issued by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) detailing silica mines — active and proposed — around the state indicated Goodhue County is home to one prospective mine and one prospective processing plant. It’s one of 10 counties in the state that has significant deposits of silica at or near the surface, according to the DNR.
Court documents obtained by Mint Press News prove oil companies have been scoping out the Red Wing area as far back as 2010.
A document included in a lawsuit regarding a dispute over land sales for the use of frac sand mining indicates that a warranty deed was issued by Scott and Susan Wesch to Windsor Permian LLC in 2011 for a portion of land located just outside Red Wing in Goodhue County.
Egan did not return calls to Mint Press News and was not in his office during a recent visit to the Red Wing City Hall.
Opponents of frac sand mining say they don’t need the jobs provided by the boom-bust industry, and they’re not comfortable opening their door to an industry with health impacts that have not been fully investigated. Red Wing is already home to a vibrant business industry, including the world-renowned Red Wing Shoe Company.
Carried by the weight of newfound community support, the City of Red Wing joined with neighboring counties and communities and passed a resolution in support of state action. The city wants the Legislature to fund and issue a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), and issue a moratorium, providing an opportunity to learn as much about the environmental impacts of the industry before any more permits are issued.
Voices heard: Minnesota residents travel to Capitol to share concerns
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, hundreds of residents from southeastern Minnesota communities just like Red Wing, Minn. boarded school buses bound for the State Capitol. They filed in for an overflow hearing of the Joint Senate Environment and Energy Committee and House Energy Policy Committee.
The hearing was dedicated to conversation regarding the silica frac sand mining issue in Minnesota and included an agenda of 41 personal and business-related testimonies.
At a press conference held directly before the hearing, community members addressed their side of the issue, speaking to concerns regarding water use, water contamination, silica-related illnesses and transportation overload caused by the industry.
Bobby King, director of the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota, laid out what southeastern Minnesota residents want from the Legislature: the GEIS and a statewide moratorium that would block new mines from operating until communities have the facts regarding its impact on environment and health.
To this date, little is known about the impacts of silica mining — and that’s not good enough for those living in communities targeted by mining companies. What Minnesota resident do know about the silica mining industry has come from residents in Wisconsin, who have been subjected to an unregulated and damaging frac sand industry.
“We know what the dangers are,” King told Mint Press News prior to the press conference. “We went over to Wisconsin. They (oil companies) push a lot of money around. There are spills, air problems and property value problems.”
When asked whether those opposing silica mining operations were working against the nation’s energy needs, King responded with a statement met with applause by those gathered in support of mining opposition.
“We don’t feel it’s about energy independence,” King said. “It’s about them (oil and mining companies) earning a short-term profit.”
These were the common themes addressed by those testifying against the silica mining industry at the Capitol hearing.
Vince Ready, a Registered Nurse (RN) and farmer living in Saratoga Township in Winona County, has raised livestock on his land for more than 35 years. He’s seen firsthand the heavy traffic that has changed the atmosphere in his rural living area, and he’s concerned about the impact on the environment and his farming land if mines continue to pop up in the area. Just last month, Winona County’s planning commission approved a mine near Saratoga Township, signaling the start of a new wave of unwanted industry in the area.
Ready was joined by dozens of others in his shoes, asking legislatures to allow time for research into the industry. Speaking with Mint Press News, he also addressed concerns related to health — silicosis being one of particular concern. The bottom line is, Ready and his neighbors don’t have the resources to prove whether they are — or aren’t — at risk for such disease in the face of the mining boom, and they don’t trust the oil and mining companies to do what’s in their best interest.
Nelson, representing Save the Bluffs, approached the stand at the hearing Tuesday with conviction. Following testimony from locally-owned oil and mining companies, she assured legislators that not all oil companies are created equal — the ones she and neighbors battled were Hedge Funds, whose main operating quarters were based in Oklahoma. Without issuing the moratorium, she told legislators they’d be allowing the corporations to win — and the residents of Minnesota to lose.
Jody Mcllrash, also representing Save the Bluffs, addressed property value decreases that would almost certainly take place is mines began to appear near residential areas. That, she said, would have an impact on property taxes for cities — a main source of revenue.
Oilfield service company executives speaking at the hearing included those with local roots. Selling the legislators on their story of small business success, executives echoed a common sentiment: The industry will bring economic prosperity to communities. Executives also claimed they’re subject to regulations that protect their employees and surrounding areas.
Yet even the Environmental Quality Board and the Minnesota Department of Health representatives testified that little is known about the impacts of the industry — on both the land and the people living near silica sand mines.
“There is very little data,” John Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency told legislators regarding the impacts of frac sand mining.
Jim Kelly, health assessor and project coordinator with the Department of Health told the Energy Committee what his industry does know: Crystalline silica is a carcinogen — and it is linked to lung cancer.
Crystalline silica is defined by the Minnesota Department of Health as “dust-sized silica particles, invisible to the naked eye, are generated during the mining process and can be breathed into the body where they reach deep into the lungs and can then pass from lungs to other organs in the body through the bloodstream.”
Beyond that, he said the information regarding the health impacts of silica mining is lacking. It is enough to cause concern, though.
Part 2 of this series will look at the impact frac sand mining has had in Wisconsin, where the industry developed before government regulations were implemented.
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