by Sarah Squires
Saratoga Township, planted in the southwest corner of the county, has gotten some attention in recent months, the land rich in frac sand that has stirred controversy as demand increases for the sand needed for natural gas and oil extraction processes in other parts of the country. And now, five more proposed mines have surfaced, bringing the total to eight new mines that would like county permits to harvest the sand that has become the area’s newest valuable commodity.
Winona County Environmental Technician Lew Overhaug said that the five new permit applications came in late last week, but that the information on the applications wasn’t complete. Some additional information must be added to the forms for the county to accept them and consider whether to grant a Conditional Use Permit for the proposals.
Overhaug said that he hadn’t spent much time evaluating the proposals yet, but that each would add more trucks onto County Road 6 — as would the three applications that have been pending as county leaders consider a potential moratorium. But, he said he thought that the five proposed mines were about the same size as the first three, at 20 acres or less. All five propose surface mining for the St. Peter Sandstone found in that area.
If the permits come back completed, the five new applications would be considered at the February planning commission meeting. But that is only if the county board does not vote to impose a moratorium, or temporary hold, to study frac sand mines.
The county board recently asked the planning commission to hold a public hearing on the moratorium question, a hearing required for the county board to consider such a temporary hold on new mines. The county board will hold the second required hearing on January 3 at 6 p.m. at the Middle School Auditorium, and may vote on whether to enact a moratorium. If the board does vote for a hold on new mines, the five new applications would have to wait until the moratorium is over to proceed.
Across the region, frac sand has become a contentious issue, with some residents voicing concerns over potential environmental and health effects, as well as road damage from heavy trucks and safety concerns. Still others have lobbied for government leaders not to hinder a new industry promising jobs and a boost to the local economy.
The sand is used in a process called hydraulic fracturing in places like North Dakota and Texas. It’s mixed with water and chemicals and then blasted into shale rock formations deep underground. The sand fills new fractures in the rock, then holds those fractures open, allowing more natural gas and oil to be harvested. The Environmental Protection Agency has tentatively linked groundwater pollution with the hydraulic fracturing process, although experts at a recent panel on the actual mining of the sand used in the process said that environmental concerns can be mitigated with careful study.
County Administrator Duane Hebert said that all new frac sand mines, including applications that are currently pending, would be on hold if a moratorium is enacted by the county board before mid-January, when the three applications on the table must either be approved, or denied.