Senate committee passes silica-sand moratorium bill

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

A provision allowing local government statewide to extend or renew silica-sand mining moratoriums until 2015 was approved by a Senate committee on Tuesday (Feb. 26).

Not all were pleased.

“With that moratorium,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, of mining dollars being invested in the state, “that will not happen.”

BensonRepublicans on the Senate Environment and Energy Committee questioned several provisions in Sen. Matt Schmit’s silica-sand mining legislation.

“My goal here is to get it right,” Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said of crafting a response to the “gold rush” silica-sand fever perceives in the mining industry.

Schmit, in his bill, would create a new Southeast Minnesota Silica Sand Board composed of county and state officials charged with developing minimum standards for silica-sand mining. Local governments could opt-out.

Local governments that adopt the minimum standards would be eligible for an enhanced silica-sand production tax for local roads and bridges, cleaning up abandoned pits and quarries, and other mining-related expenses.

Republicans objected to specifying the use of the tax dollars, but Sen. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, defended it, saying it assured that the money wouldn’t wind up being spent on building additions.

“So I would recommend leaving it,” she said.

The legislation would also create a state silica-sand production tax — tax amounts are not currently specified in the bill — on imports of silica sand from other states.

The bill, besides the moratorium, sets other clocks in motion.

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, listens to mining industry official Kirsten Pauly during Tuesday's hearing. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, listens to mining industry official Kirsten Pauly during Tuesday’s hearing. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

It directs the Environmental Quality Board to complete a generic environment impact statement (GEIS) on silica-sand mining, transportation and processing.

The GEIS, which state mining industry officials argue is needless — all mining operations are different, they say — is to be completed by May, 2014.

A year later, state agencies would adopt the rule changes identified in the GEIS.

All local mining permits thereafter would need to be consistent with the GEIS findings.

As a week ago, members of the public from southeast Minnesota — home of the finest silica sand in the world, Schmit declared — appeared in support of legislation.

Jeanne Pietig, a Wabasha County planning and zoning commission member, said local government is not equipped to monitor the silica-sand industry.

“Absolutely not,” Pietig said, speaking as a private citizen.

Fillmore County Preble Township Member David Williams said while local government officials have prepared for the silica-sand boom there was dire need for state involvement.

Mining industry officials repeatedly stressed support for strong state standards, but argued the legislation was overkill.

Scott Sustacek, of Jordan Sands, pointing to the tan stone of the State Capitol committee room and saying it was mined by the company a century ago in Mankato, said silica sand is found under the stone in its quarry.

The want to develop the 70-acre site, but the bill would bring the plan to a “screeching halt,” he said.

Also, taxing silica sand in Minnesota would put producers at a disadvantage against producers in Wisconsin, he argued.

Operating Engineers Local 49’s Jason George sid the bill risks  $40 an hour wage packages in Greater Minnesota.

“The life of the pit is coming to end,” he said of some quarrying.

Allowing silica-sand mining could mean workers could stay on, perhaps even work into retirement at the same mining location.

Sand, dust and odors are simply part of rural living, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, argued.

Her comment drew a disapproving murmur from bill advocates in the committee room.

Several Republican amendments were offered to change the legislation, but failed.

The bill, which passed the committee on a party-line vote, will have the mining industry looking elsewhere to make investments, Benson said.

The use of silica, or frac sand, is expected to continue to be used in oil and gas mining, Schmit countered.

Time is not running out, he argued.

The legislation is expected to make a series of stops in different Senate committees.

There is no companion legislation yet in the House.

Tim Budig can be reached at tim.budig@ecm-inc.com.

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