by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County’s frac sand mining ban has survived another legal challenge. On Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the ban in a 2-1 decision. Land Stewardship Project (LSP) Policy Organizer Johanna Rupprecht, who helped lead a campaign to pass the ban, said the ruling affirmed the power of citizens to protect their communities from environmental harm. Representatives for Minnesota Sands, the would-be frac sand mining company that filed the lawsuit, said they were considering further appeals.
The County Board passed the ban on a split vote in 2016 after a months-long citizen campaign led by LSP. In 2017, Minnesota Sands sued, arguing that the ban is unconstitutional because it allows mining sand for local construction uses but outlaws mining sand for industrial uses, including hydraulic fracking for oil and natural gas. The company contended that this violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on states and local governments interfering with interstate commerce. According to its court filings, Minnesota Sands holds leases to mine multiple frac sand deposits in Winona County worth $3.6 billion. After losing in district court last fall, the company appealed. At the Court of Appeals, a three-judge panel considered arguments from Minnesota Sands and Winona County before siding 2-1 with the county.
“The county’s zoning ordinance amendment does not violate the dormant commerce clause because it even-handedly bans both in-state and out-of-state interests from mining all silica sand in Winona County,” Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Renee Worke wrote in her majority opinion.
One of the core issues in the case was whether there was a real difference between frac sand and ordinary sand. The county’s ban draws a line between mining “construction minerals,” including sand used in construction projects, and mining “industrial minerals,” including silica sand used in fracking. Mining construction sand is allowed, but mining industrial sand is outlawed. In her opinion, Judge Worke wrote that the evidence supports the county’s conclusion that the two categories are different. She pointed out that to be used in fracking, sand must be made up of relatively pure quartz with very fine grains, while the construction industry is far less picky. The ban does not discriminate against out-of-state uses of sand; it prohibits a particular type of mining — silica sand mining — whether that sand is sold in Minnesota or elsewhere, Worke’s opinion concluded.
Actually, the construction industry uses the same sand, Judge Matthew Johnson wrote in a dissenting opinion. “In reality, Winona County silica sand is used both for ‘local construction purposes’ and for ‘industrial’ purposes…” he wrote, pointing to a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources report and affidavits from an expert geologist and the county’s zoning administrator. Johnson disagreed with the other two judges on the Court of Appeals panel, stating that the ban does violate the interstate commerce clause.
Minnesota Sands challenged the county’s ordinance on another front, as well. The company’s lawyers argued that the ban effectively took away Minnesota Sands’ ability to use its property without just compensation. In response, Worke pointed out that several of Minnesota Sands’ mining leases were contingent on the company getting a conditional use permit (CUP) from Winona County. Minnesota Sands missed its chance by not applying for a CUP between 2012 and 2016, Worke held. She cited a 1982 case that ruled that the government does not owe compensation to “the owner for the consequences of his own neglect.”
“I think it’s very good news,” Rupprecht said of the ruling. “I think it just affirms again that Winona County, in enacting this ordinance, is acting the way local governments are supposed to act.” The county listened to its citizens and took action to protect the common good, Rupprecht explained. “It should be an inspiration to people in other communities dealing with, not only the frac sand industry, but other destructive, extractive industries,” she added.
“Minnesota Sands is extremely disappointed by the ruling and we are reviewing the decision to determine our options, [which] could include appealing this decision,” Minnesota Sands spokesman, Mike Zipko stated. In a written statement, company officials went on to insist that the ban is unconstitutional. “The ban eliminates landowner mineral rights and creates an economic risk and threat to anyone who benefits from use of their land,” Zipko wrote. “If Winona County has concerns related to mining within its borders, it has every right to adopt reasonable regulations instead of imposing what we continue to believe is an unconstitutional ban,” he added.
Winona County representatives were not immediately available for comment.