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Bill would tax sand, extend moratoria, fund GEIS (02/24/2013)
By Sarah Squires

Conversation on statewide moratorium expected this week

A bill expected to be introduced this week at the Capitol would dramatically change the regulatory landscape for frac sand businesses in Southeastern Minnesota.

The legislation would fund a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), a broad environmental study on the potential effects of the industry in the region, and would allow local moratoria on the industry to be extended or renewed while the GEIS is prepared. It would also create a state sand board that would study the industry, along with the creation of a sand tax that local governments could impose on the sand mines.

Senator Matt Schmit (DFL - Red Wing), chief author of the bill, expects to introduce the legislation Monday along with Senators Kathy Sheran (DFL - Mankato), Kevin Dahle (DFL - Northfield) and Katie Sieben (DFL - Cottage Grove).

The bill would provide for a local tax on sand per ton or cubic yard extracted, although the tax rate is not included in the preliminary bill language. It would also fund a GEIS, a comprehensive environmental study that would examine potential cumulative effects of the industry across a wide region in Southeastern Minnesota, with the study expected to be completed by May, 2014. Local units of government would be allowed to extend moratoria, which prohibit new sand businesses, or to renew moratoria that have expired, until March 1, 2015.

Sen. Schmit said in a news release that the voices of dozens of opponents to the frac sand industry who traveled to the Capitol last week were heard. "The message was loud and clear: we have an opportunity to avoid the perils of western Wisconsin; let's not repeat their mistakes," he said. "This coming week we'll likely consider the merits of a statewide moratorium, as well as particular state permitting standards known to us now."

Meanwhile in the Minnesota House, Representative Rick Hansen (DFL - Mendota Heights), is preparing to introduce a bill that he said would create a state scientific and technological advisory team to provide advice to local governments on frac sand proposals. He said local governments would not have to abide by the advice issued, which would still provide for local control of the industry. "We can bring science to help [local governments] make decisions related to the, in some places new, and in some places existing, industry," he said. Rep. Hansen has also authored legislation that would provide funding for the state to purchase land as "scientific and natural areas" in places with industrial silica sand resources likely to be mined, "in order to protect unique hydrological features." It would also allow the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources to purchase permanent easements to prevent sand mining in wellhead protection areas.

Schmit's bill also specifies the creation of a joint powers board composed of county board members from Winona, Blue Earth, Dakota, Dodge, Faribault, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, LeSueur, Mower, Nicollet, Olmsted, Rice, Scott, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca and Washington counties. The joint powers board would create and implement a comprehensive land use plan designed to address issues related to silica sand mining, transportation and processing. Each local government unit would adopt provisions of the plan in local ordinances governing the industry, and each county must provide funds to cover the cost of the joint powers board.

The joint powers board would have the ability to weigh in on local government decisions about the need for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a study similar to a GEIS but focused on a finite set of proposed projects. If a local government determines a proposed project does not need an EIS review, the joint powers board can "reject the decision of the responsible governmental unit and require further deliberation by the responsible government unit."

Along with the proposed legislation, multiple state agencies are currently studying the sand industry. The Environmental Quality Board (EQB) is conducting a study that will compile information from a variety of state offices and agencies to determine what aspects of the sand industry may require further review. EQB Principal Planner Jeff Smyser said the study, in part a response to citizen requests for a GEIS, is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.

The EQB mulled a preliminary draft of the sand study last month, and meeting minutes indicate growing concern from the Governor's office on the sand mining issue. "Chair [Dave] Frederickson wants to indicate, for the record, that Governor Dayton is very, very concerned about the whole issue of silica sand mining and its impact and effect on the southeastern portion of Minnesota; he definitely does not want projects to get approved before legislative decisions can be made," state the minutes. "If need[ed], be assured that he will use his executive powers to slow things down; he is looking for serious discussions/debates but wants that to take place along with members of the legislature; he is watching very carefully and critically of what is going on in the countryside."

A call to Governor Mark Dayton's office Thursday for comment did not receive a response by Friday. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story. 


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