Frac sand is making headlines across the country, a new technique for extracting natural gas that has people all over digging for the valuable, round sort of silica sand. And the Winona region is not immune to the new industry -- with planned sand washing and transport facilities in the works, and three applications with Winona County from landowners seeking the right to mine the sand in Saratoga Township.
Frac sand is part of a process called hydraulic fracturing. A fluid mixture containing the rounded frac sand is injected into a rock layer, where the frac sand enters rock fractures and holds the cracks open for gas to escape. It increases the amount of gas or other resource extracted, and has changed the industry entirely. But mining, washing, and transporting of the sand, as well as the extraction process itself, have faced criticism as potentially presenting negative health impacts and groundwater contamination issues.
The industry is relatively new to the area, prompting city and county officials to take close looks at the regulations in place for such land use activities. And although the potential health effects have not been fully studied, residents neighboring facilities where the sand is harvested or processed have voiced fears about the potential respiratory problems associated with dust may present, how the processes might affect groundwater, and what the new industry may actually mean for the region.
Bob Hemker just entered into a lease agreement with the Winona Port Authority that includes an option to purchase land in the East End industrial park. His plan is for a facility where frac sand would be washed and screened of impurities, then transported onto barges and rail cars to be sent to extraction wells elsewhere. He said he would recycle water and the operation would include about 40 covered trucks a day.
Rich Mikrut has developed his own facility on the city’s West End, where frac sand will be stored, cleaned and loaded onto rail cars and semis. Permitting for his operation faced criticism from neighboring residents who felt the industrial business was too close to their homes, negatively impacting their neighborhood with added traffic, dust and noise.
Mikrut said he’ll be involved in the Hemker operation, helping to load the product onto rail cars. He said the industry could create needed job growth and economic development in the region. “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for our area,” he said.
And every sandbox in Winona’s got frac sand in it, added Hemker, who has been working with sand products in the area for 40 years. The rounded frac sand was never considered good for things like asphalt in the past, but now, it has found its use. “This sand is found everywhere in this area,” he said.
On the mining side of frac sand, Winona County is preparing to consider three requests for new mining operations in Saratoga Township, where frac sand would be extracted to the tune of about 200,000 cubic yards of material a year, each.
The county requires that a new nonmetallic mining operation secure a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to begin operating. This kind of permit allows county leaders to look at projects individually, and to apply requirements of operators to address specific potential problems with an individual operation.
Community and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman said the county’s current ordinance includes some good components for the regulation and permitting of such proposed mining operations. He, along with other county staff members, have been looking into the frac sand issue to make sure the county is prepared if frac sand mining and related businesses begin to really explode in the area.
One thing that may need consideration is adding language to the ordinance that accounts for heavy truck traffic tearing up county and other roadways. If a large operation moves into an area and the truck traffic damages the roadway, the county may need to specifically spell out the way an operator would have to mitigate that damage.
The current ordinance also requires a reclamation plan for any new mining facility -- a document that identifies what the area will be used for when the mining work is done, and how the property owners will work to get the land into the right condition to be used for that future purpose. Often times, a mining operation plans for agricultural use following the extraction work, and reclamation can involve efforts to clean up a site and add enough fill and topsoil to be used for farming.
Whether the frac sand industry will really take off in the area is up to several factors, said Gilman, including market forces and the success of other mining and extraction operations elsewhere in the country. But it’s clear that there is plenty of frac in the Winona region, and more related businesses will likely keep popping up. “I think it’s safe to say we will probably see more speculation on this type of sand mining,” said Gilman.
Gilman also said that while there is a lot of this kind of sand in the area, at this point, most of the mining operations are focused on the frac sand that is closest to the surface, that can be more easily and cheaply collected. Gilman said that if the industry continues to expand, mining companies may begin looking at the deeper sand deposits in Winona County.
As for the potential health effects related to frac sand dust and potential ground water problems with mining operations, Gilman said county officials are working hard to study the information available.