Letter about frac sand mining send to Goodhue County officials

Alan Muller

1110 West Avenue

Red Wing, Minnesota, USA





May 20, 2013

Members of the Goodhue County Planning Advisory Commission

The Commissioners of Goodhue County

Dear Commissioners:

It’s not often that a “new” industry threatens to change the character of a community in the way frac sand mining threatens to change Goodhue County.  This has been recognized by the County Commissioners, who enacted and then extended a moratorium, formed a “Mining Study Committee,” hired consultants—but not the right ones–adopted new zoning ordinance language, and considered the issue in a number of public meetings and hearings.  The City of Red Wing and other cities and townships have also considered frac sand mining and enacted ordinances.   Florence Twp. decided that frac sand mining and processing do not belong in their township.

Now, a Land Use Department Staff Report, dated May 13, 2013, presents a proposed Amendment to the Comprehensive Plan and a proposed Zoning Text Amendment to Article 14 (Mineral Extraction).

I can’t attend the May 20, 2013 public hearing, but ask you to consider these comments as testimony in this matter.


The County hasn’t yet adequately come to grips with the pros and cons of frac sand mining: What it offers us, balanced against what it could do to our natural resources, our economy, and our health and quality of life.  There are ways to examine this question and it’s being done elsewhere, but not yet here.

The Mining Study Committee (MSC)

Given the high level of public interest and the high stakes, the MSC should have tried to be a model of transparency and democratic process. This did not seem to me to be the case.

The Study Committee seems dominated by mining advocates and has been closely controlled by Land Use Department staff.  The deliberations seem to have focused on details rather than the big picture and the assignments given with the moratorium extension.

For the most part, the posted minutes, if that is what they are, only identify statements by staff, not by committee members.

The MSC should have, but did not, facilitated public participation by laying out materials for use by the public, having a public comment period as part of each meeting, etc.

There is no letter of transmittal and no other indication I have found that the committee members voted to adopt the recommendations and conclusions in the “summary report,” or the report as a whole.

The eight“Alternatives for Planning Advisory Commission Action” in the staff reportall begin with “Accept the MSC report including all supplemental documentation, and Findings of Fact ….” This seems disrespectful of the Planning Advisory Commission and the County Board. It is their decision, not that of the staff of the Land Use Department, to decide on the adequacy of the MSC report.

Equally concerning is that the proposed amendment language for the comp plan and the mineral extraction zoning ordinance does not seem to be part of the MSC report, and it is not clear that the MSC voted to support it.

For the most part, the report is vague and insubstantial, lacking data and citations to support the positions taken. For example:

The report contains sections entitled “Pros/Cons of banning silica sand mining,” and“Relationship between economic and recreational value.” In neither of these sections has information been presented that would assist in a rational evaluation of the net costs and/or benefits to Goodhue County. Yet, this has been done elsewhere in the area.

Some think any deal offering “jobs” should be taken up.   The reported unemployment rate of Goodhue County is about five percent (varies seasonally).  The rate for Minnesota as a whole is 5.3 percent and the US rate is 7.6 percent (April 2013). Increased employment opportunities are welcome, but these numbers do not suggest that unemployment in Goodhue County is high, such that other long-term values should be sacrificed. Again, the MSC report contains no substantial information.

Dr. Tom Power has just produced a report, sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the Wisconsin Towns Association, and the Wisconsin Farmers Union, looking at the broader implications of frac sand mining for Wisconsin communities. “The Economic Benefits and Costs of Frac-Sand Mining in West Central Wisconsin.”

This is exactly the sort of report that Goodhue County should have commissioned a couple of years ago, to establish a basis for informed decision-making.  From the Executive Summary:

“… mining, processing, and transporting the sand promises economic benefits for some parts of the population while imposing business, environmental, and social costs, on other parts of the population. Citizens and elected officials have to evaluate the mix of benefits and costs and their distribution over the short term and long term to make an informed decision as to what is best for their community.”

“The commercial businesses promoting frac-sand production typically commission economic impact analyses that purport to layout the “economics” of frac-sand production. These types of impact studies, however, almost always quantify only what are labeled benefits: additional jobs, payrolls, and tax revenues to governments. Costs associated with frac-sand production are rarely discussed in these studies. Since economic analysis, in general, involves the analysis of choices and tradeoffs where benefits and cost have to be weighed, the study of only benefits is difficult to label an economic analysis. As economists are fond of saying: “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” meaning costs are almost always present and have to be considered in any rational decision.”

“ This report seeks to look at both the benefits and the costs associated with frac-sand mining. The objective of the report is to lay the basis for more informed public discussions and improved decisions about how to manage the natural landscape in Wisconsin’s frac-sand country. Based on our research on the impacts of mining activity across the nation and around the world, we will raise many questions about the benefits and costs associated with frac-sand mining. Some of those questions we will answer, some we will not. The intent is to lay out as clearly as possible the questions that each community needs to ask and answer, as best they can, before authorizing additional frac-sand production.”

Conclusions of the report are well demonstrated in other parts of Minnesota:

• The promise that mining can lay the basis for prosperous, vital economies has not usually been fulfilled. Wisconsin has had a long history of mining that tells the same historical story found in other mining districts across the United States and around the world. Mining has rarely laid the basis for sustained prosperity. Often, as in Appalachia or the Ozarks or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the Iron Range of Minnesota, mining has been synonymous with economic depression, high rates of unemployment and poverty, or simply “ghost towns.”

• This “economic anomaly of mining,” the apparent contradiction between wealth creation and high wages not leading to community prosperity or often, even, community survival, needs to be recognized and understood if communities are going to manage their landscapes so as to sustain and increase local economic wellbeing.

Another useful report is ” The Economics of Sand Mining in Buffalo County,” Carl Duley and Steven Deller, University of Wisconsin. (Undated, but believed to be September, 2012.)

So, unfortunately, after two years of work, we don’t yet have a strong factual or procedural basis for decision-making.

A few “big picture” points missing in the committee report and the staff report.

There is plenty of frac sand.  Goodhue County’s decisions on whether to all the mining of it here will have no impact on the price or availability of sand, the practice of fracking, or on the price of oil and gas.  This is strictly a local land use decision and should be made on local considerations.

Frac sand mining advocates point out that and and gravel have been mined in Minnesota, and in Goodhue County, for a long time – The City of Red Wing has marked out a “Sand Hill Trail” across West Avenue from our home, and outcroppings of sand are visible from our front porch.  But, frac sand mining is fundamentally different in the nature and scale of the operations from mining of sand and aggregate for mason work, glass making, and road construction, and the political clout and unscrupulous tactics long associated with the oil and gas industries.  Need I mention the hiring of the Mayor of Red Wing as a lobbyist for the industry?

Yet the Land Use Department, and perhaps a majority of the MSC, seems to insist on regulating all “mineral extraction” in the same way. The MSC could have investigated this question rationally by estimating the likely (upper bound) scale of frac sand mining and comparing this to the present scale of sand/aggregate mining in the county. My sense is that such a comparison would indicate that the scale of frac sand extraction could be ten, or one hundred, or more times greater, and obviously needing to be regulated differently. But the analysis has apparently not been done.

Goodhue County has broad authority to determine what “land uses” are allowable and under what conditions. This derives from a broad authority and responsibility to protect the public health, safety, and welfare.  Townships that have taken on land use regulation—optional for townships in Minnesota–have similar broad powers.  This means that property ownership does not confer an automatic right to mine sand, establish a scrap yard, or whatever.

Property owners, obviously, have rights, and there is sometimes conflict between economic opportunity for those owners and the welfare of the community. The released memo from the County Attorney seems to argue one side of this issue, relying on old coal mining cases. More helpful would be a balanced discussion of the pros and cons of policy alternatives, including a possible determination that frac sand mining is not an acceptable land use in Goodhue County. An evaluation of the Florence Township “ban” would be helpful. Again, the public and elected officials need balanced and objective information to make sound and legally defensible decisions.

To my mind basic questions are:  Is an adequate regulatory framework in place to ensure that frac sand mining and processing could be carried out without harm?   Is such a regulatory framework realistically possible, given the nature of the industry and the overall political situation? (It might be technically but not politically possible….) If so, frac sand mining could be considered as a permissable land use, after such a framework is in place.   If not, not.  Lets look at some details of this question:

I have looked into the requirements on air and water quality, and workplace safety and health, and protection of our air and water and bluffs and views.  Agencies involved include the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the United States Environment Protection Agency, and many others.

There is no specific limit for silica dust in the air, though frac sand mining and processing is known to load the air with this dust, which causes disease and death. Thus, the health of the general public is not now protected.

The “occupational” standard for this harmful dust is known to be too high to protect workers from getting silicosis and lung cancer.  Another Federal agency, the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, wants a limit one-half as high as MSHA and OSHA  presently use, but anti-health industry lobbying has so far prevailed.

The regulatory agencies do not have sufficient staff to inspect facilities frequently, and in Wisconsin the compliance record of the industry, on the rare occasions that inspections do occur, is poor.

Frac sand mining and processing has great potential to (1) use excessive amounts of water, and (2) pollute ground and surface waters with harmful, cancer-causing chemicals such as acrylamide.

Counties and townships can effectively address some issues through ordinances.  For examples, heavy truck traffic tears up roads and high traffic levels make roads less safe and and less pleasant to use. Local governments can make agreements with mining companies to pay for road damage.  But what about congestion, noise, and diesel emissions, harms that are more difficult to measure and value, but very real nonetheless?

One could cite many other examples.

The conclusion seems inevitable that an adequately protective regulatory framework is not in place and, therefore, frac sand mining should not be allowed in Goodhue County.

Spokespeople for the industry, Former Mayor Egan, for example, or Mr. Litzenberg of the Study Committee, say they are the good guys.   In a rational world, the industry would support creating this adequate regulatory framework I’m talking about.

But, have you followed the frac sand mining controversies in the Minnesota Legislature?  (Or in the US Congress? Or in the White House? ) The sand mining interests have fought regulation every inch of the way, and have largely had their way.  The only measures they have supported are token ones such as technical advisory panels they expect to control as they seem to control the MSC.

The walk just doesn’t match the talk.  So I conclude,  based on these facts, that an adequate framework is not in place and is not likely anytime soon.  Therefore Goodhue County should identify frac sand mining as a prohibited use.

As Mr. Betcher has pointed out, this should be done with extreme care, ensuring that procedural requirements are fully met and that the decisions are fully-justified on the record.


Frac sand mining is not an issue that’s going away.  It may be a big part of the political landscape for the rest of our lives, at least for those choosing to live in this part of the country.   So that’s the appropriate thinking and planning horizon. Lets do our homework and get this right.

It appears to me that the time since the extension of the moratorium on

August 16, 2012 has largely been wasted. Less than three months remains until expiration of the moratorium. This is sufficient time to construct a satisfactory “ban” ordinance but only if the work is focused and efficient.


I recommend that the Planning Advisory Commission not accept at this time any of the alternatives presented by the Land Use Department.

I recommend that the Planning Advisory Commission find that the “summary report” of the Mining Study Committee does not offer satisfactory guidance for further action at this time.

I recommend that the Planning Advisory Commission find that, in principle, frac sand mining does not appear to be an acceptable land use in Goodhue County.

I recommend that the Planning Advisory Commission and Board identify resources able to develop language consistent with this finding, in a procedurally sound manner, and get them started post haste.

In general, I endorse the comments of Save The Bluffs members.

Respectfully submitted,

Alan Muller



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