Community members in the southern portion of the state paired with fishing enthusiasts to form a united front against mining near streams.
In the land of 10,000 lakes, recreational fishing is king.
The industry represents $1.58 billion in annual revenue, according to the Department of Natural Resources. And in the face of an oil industry-induced silica sand mining frenzy, the habitats of the state’s beloved trout could be in danger.
In a last ditch effort to regulate the ‘frac sand’ industry in Minnesota, community members in the southern portion of the state paired with fishing enthusiasts to form a united front against mining near trout streams.
They lost — sort of.
Lawmakers in late May came to a compromise with those community members and the fishing community lobbying for regulations near trout streams, creating a new Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permit, which allows for scrutiny and a hydrological study on the impact of frac sand mining near the habitats.
Sen. Matt Schmit, a Democrat from Red Wing, Minn, introduced a bill calling for a complete ban on mines near trout streams. He did so with the backing of Trouts Unlimited and the constituents of southeastern Minnesota, yet his efforts fell short.
The new permit provision isn’t exactly what fishing enthusiasts and community activists had in mind, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“What this gives us is stricter scrutiny in the most sensitive regions of southeastern Minnesota,” Schmit told Minnesota Public Radio. “It gives notice that these areas around our trout streams are going to be watched very closely and creates an incentives for mining to take place elsewhere.”
Minnesota’s silica sand is being eyed by the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) industry, as it serves an essential role in the fracking process. The drilling process requires a concoction of water, chemicals and silica sand driven into the earth at high pressure in order to break up rock formations and allow once-trapped oil to be extracted.
With the southeastern portion of the state rich in silica sand, residents in remote communities suddenly found themselves in the midst of the fracking debate when mining companies began to buy up swaths of neighboring land. They lobbied heavily for a moratorium on frac sand mining in the state, but lost the battle.
“Numerous silica sand mining bills and provisions, including ones calling for a regional impact study and a [moratorium] to allow for the adoption of state standards, have all been stymied by lobbyists and legislators from outside the affected areas of our state,” Trouts Unlimited said in an April press release.
Trouts Unlimited emerged as a voice alongside community members in the southeastern blufflands of the state, hoping for protection against trout streams the industry depends on.
“I’m not thrilled with it, but it’s a good start. It’s progress,” Minnesota Trout Unlimited Executive Director John Lenczewski said.
Don’t mess with fishing in Minnesota
While Minnesota is known for its lakes, it’s also home to plentiful trout streams — 1,900 miles worth with an estimated total trout population of 2.3 million, according to the DNR. .
Prior to the legislative compromise, Lenczewski told Minnesota Public Radio that sand mines could threaten cold water springs that “sustain the fisheries,” claiming that thousands of job depend on the trout fishing industry.
According to the DNR, fishing expenditures in Minnesota account for $1.58 billion, with more than 3.5 million commercial fish harvested each year. To keep populations healthy, 2.3 million trouts are stocked each year.
During a joint Senate and House hearing in February on a potential frac sand mining moratorium, Lenczewski told lawmakers there were numerous concerns over frac sand mining near trout streams, including a loss of water.
In order to prepare silica sand for the market, it must be washed. To do that, the mining companies need water.
“The industry does not need to use our future drinking water to wash sand,” Lenczewski said at the hearing, explaining his concern that consuming exorbitant amounts of water would compromise the trout habitats. At that same time, he requested the state to prohibit sand mining companies from digging within 25 feet of groundwater supplies.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, mining companies in Wisconsin were allowed to dig just shy of groundwater levels, creating concern over pollutants that could then leak into aquifers and beyond.
A neverending fight
Residents argued at the Capitol in February that more time was needed to address issues related to mining operations, including health concerns associated with silicosis — a disease caused by exposure to silica sand — and heavy truck traffic.
Minnesotans’ neighbors to the east have served as prime examples of what can happen when the silica mining industry moves in before the state has a chance to properly regulate it. In 2005, Wisconsin had only a handful of silica mines. By 2012, the state had issued 131 permits for frac sand mining and processing sites, according to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
“We know what the dangers are,” Bobby King, director of the Land Stewardship Project, told Mint Press News during the moratorium debate. “We went over to Wisconsin. [Oil companies] push a lot of money around. There are spills, air problems and property value problems.”
His sentiment was echoed by the hundreds gathered outside — and inside — a hearing on the issue with the Joint Senate Environment and Energy Committee and House Energy Policy Committee.
Registered nurse and farmer Vince Ready hails from Saratoga Township in the state’s Winona County. He testified at the hearing on the impact silica mines have had in his area. Peaceful rural roads have turned into high-traffic areas. Without the moratorium, residents in pro-mining counties like his have little hope of protection.
Despite the diverse, bipartisan movement of community members in favor of the moratorium, the move didn’t make it very far.
Gov. Mark Dayton (D) came out opposed to the effort. With a large mining industry in the northern part of the state, gaining support for a bill that would have targeted the mining industry was a tough sell.
Dayton instead encouraged local governments to limit moratoriums as they see fit. While some counties and communities, including Red Wing, have implemented bans, others have not. In April, 35 Catholic Worker activists were arrested for protesting the industry in Winona County.
Protecting the trout became the next possible answer to their concerns, all the while drawing in a new segment of Minnesota’s population opposed to the overarching impact of frac sand mining. It now seems that those concerns have been dealt with, to the dismay of those who see the compromise as one that could put residents of silica-rich areas on the losing end of the battle.
That thought was enhanced in June, when Winona County, home to silica-rich land, approved its first silica mine operation, setting a precedent for mining in Minnesota.