By Jody McIlrath
I am a Planning Commissioner in Florence Township, which is in southeast Minnesota’s Goodhue County. I am also chair of the Save-The-Bluffs Citizen’s group and a new member of the Land Stewardship Project. I have been heavily involved in the silica frac sand issue here in Goodhue County since May 2011.
I was retired once, happy as a clam, with my own personal life. I learned of the intended mining land purchases in my community by mere happenstance. I have since become self-educated via endless research and by tapping information resources, expertise and experience from western Wisconsin, where there gargantuan and rapid expansion of silica frac sand mining is taking place.
On Oct. 1-3, I attended the University of Minnesota-organized conference, “Silica Sand Resources of Minnesota and Wisconsin.” I was one of only a few non-industry attendees. Although a conference organizer claimed it was to be a neutral conference and not pro-mining, the word “propaganda” kept creeping into my mind. It was full of grand PowerPoint presentations were made about the “efficiencies” of the mining processes.
The “granddaddy” of presentations was on the glories of mine reclamation—full screen colored photos of golf courses, walking trails, ball fields, lakes, parks and happy people. No one mentioned that it’s only a 20-30 year wait while our bluffs are destroyed, air and water is polluted, roads clogged with truck traffic, and farms displaced.
One presentation was on the economic benefits of sand mining that began with the “neutral” statement that local people with concerns are “totally misinformed” about frac sand mining and are spreading erroneous information. The presenter gave no example of this so-called misinformation.
This is where I took personal offense. What I and my neighbors had learned over 18 months—after hours of research on the health, environmental and economic issues; attending and facilitating countless meetings; and interviewing experts in Wisconsin—was completely dismissed by this one presenter. How can we believe the frac sand industry’s promises to be a good neighbor when at this conference they simply dismissed local residents’ concerns out-of-hand?
The final day of the conference was an all-day tour of mines and processing centers in Wisconsin. The tour was delayed by an hour while a group of seven brave “fractivists” climbed atop one of the tour buses and wouldn’t get down until the fire trucks appeared and the police arrested (and released) them. I was thankful that these protesters, along with ones that had been present at the beginning of the conference, made it clear to the media and those attending that many in southeast Minnesota are aware of the environmental and economic harm that this industry will do to our communities.
On the road between mine visits, I was mentally timing the 20-ton “belly loader” trucks passing us both ways every two minutes on the narrow Wisconsin roads. I also noticed the sand dunes in some of the ditches.
The tour’s crème de la crème was the stop at the Preferred Sands Blair mine. The place was set up with a (dusty) blue and white tent in the bottom of a 440-acre sandstone pit, personalized name tags for tour groups, and bottled water with complimentary logo cooler cups.
After a brief intro by a very personable spokesman, mine officials staged a real live “blast” for us and photos were encouraged. All the geologists/engineers were salivating. I have to say, I was interested as well, never before witnessing a real live explosion. We walked about 200 yards from the tent, the warning signal was given, and a huge blast occurred (see photo).
We were standing about 1,000 feet from the blast and the ground shook under our feet. The sand shot over 100 feet in the air, and then a huge plume of orange smoke followed. “Wow,” I’m thinking to myself. “Our Goodhue County ordinance property setbacks just got increased to 1,000 feet from mines… and now I’m convinced it’s still way… too… close.”
It was clear from this tour that silica frac sand mining processing and transport is an INDUSTRIAL business, and if allowed at all belongs in an INDUSTRIAL zone. It is not an agricultural operation in any sense—as frac sand mining industry representatives in Goodhue County have claimed. All the professionals on the tour I spoke with agreed with my assessment.
I am deeply disappointed that the University of Minnesota would hold such a one-sided conference. No one even mildly critical of the industry or a single person that would be personally affected by frac sand mining spoke at this “neutral” conference.
However, I’m glad I attended and I learned a great deal. It clearly confirmed my quest to keep this industry away from our communities.