Regardless of Ruling, Winona County Frac Sand Ban is Bad Public Policy
In 2016, Winona County became the first and only county in Minnesota to ban frac sand mining, which prohibits the mining of silica sand used for hydraulic fracturing by the oil and gas industry.
On May 7th, 2018, the County went to court to defend the ban in the face of legal challenges. Regardless of whether Winona’s frac sand mining ban withstands court challenge, it is exceptionally bad public policy.
I’ve written extensively about frac sand mining in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and despite claims made by supporters of this sand-mining ban, there are two main problems with this ban:
- There is zero scientific justification for banning frac sand mining in Winona County.
- Winona County’s ordinance allows sand mining for local use in construction, landscaping and agriculture, but not for uses outside the local area, such as hydraulic fracturing.
1. The Utter Lack of Science Supporting the Ban
Opponents of frac sand mining often cite a laundry list of potential negative outcomes associated with mining frac sand.
According to the LaCrosse Tribune:
“The Land Stewardship Project spearheaded a 17-month grassroots campaign, citing risks to public health, air and water; damage to the scenic landscape of southeastern Minnesota; the impact on roads from heavy truck traffic and the loss of farmland.”
The problem with the Land Stewardship Project’s (LSP) campaign is it was almost an entirely fact-free operation. For example, scientific data collected at frac sand mining sites in Minnesota concluded mining is not negatively impacting air. Also, far more farmland has been lost to urban sprawl than will ever be used for industrial sand mines.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has an entire webpage dedicated to air monitoring data collected near frac sand mining sites. In a nutshell, MPCA’s key conclusion is this: There are fewer small particles of silica near frac sand mines than there are near farm fields and unpaved roads.
According to MPCA’s website:
“Ambient monitoring for respirable crystalline silica on the fenceline of mines and processing facilities did not find air concentrations above the inhalation health benchmark for respirable crystalline silica [emphasis added].”
In Winona, specifically, MPCA found:
“The measured air concentrations were below the respirable silica health based value and did not suggest any exceedances of ambient air quality standards [emphasis added].”
The reason more farmland will be lost to urban sprawl than will ever by lost to frac sand mines in Minnesota is largely a product of geology.
Unlike Wisconsin, which has many suitable sites for frac sand mining near or at the land surface, Minnesota’s sandstone formations are overlain by a thick layer of limestone that makes mining in Minnesota less economically attractive.
That’s why frac sand mining in Minnesota will be geographically constrained to existing limestone quarries and areas where the sandstone bedrock is exposed, like river valleys.
2. Legal Aspects
The real reason this sand mining ban is flawed is that it is incredibly arbitrary. Silica sand mined for livestock bedding, road construction aggregate, or glass making has the same environmental impact as frac sand mining.
Therefore, this ban is based on the end-use, rather than the actual environmental or social impacts of the mining, itself.
Whether or not this ban is upheld in court, it is poor public policy that lacks sufficient scientific evidence to support it.
Counties should be focused on enacting sensible regulations, such as designating haul routes for sand, and requiring sand mines to water their sand piles to prevent fugitive dust from leaving mine property instead of banning the legitimate use of our natural resources.