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Sand storm brewing on the horizon

Mining for sand used in the hydraulic fracturing process has become a hot topic in Minnesota and state leaders in North Dakota are paying attention.

With the Bakken Formation receiving much of its sand used for fracking from neighboring states to the east like Minnesota and Wisconsin, people in the Peace Garden State are interested in a groundswell movement in Minnesota that is asking for a moratorium on mining for frac sand.

Close to 200 citizens and public officials from southeastern Minnesota rallied at the state capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday, asking lawmakers to put a halt to any new silica sand mining operations until potential health and environmental effects can be further studied.

During Wednesday's North Dakota Industrial Commission meeting in Bismarck, state Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms briefed the three-member commission on recent happenings in Minnesota, to which Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem expressed surprise.

"They didn't want our electricity and now they don't want our gasoline either?" Stenehjem rhetorically asked.

Much of the sand that comes to western North Dakota for fracking purposes comes from mines in western and west-central Wisconsin with a number of other mines and planned mines showing up in Minnesota along the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

DMR spokesperson Alison Ritter said about 2 million tons of sand is used in the Bakken annually with the oil industry shelling out about $500 million per year. Ritter said each fracked oil well uses about 2 million pounds of sand, although proppant such as small rubber pellets can also be used in the process.

Fracking fluid -- a combination of water, chemicals and sand or other proppants -- is blasted into the earth with the sand or proppant serving as props to allow minerals to flow from the rock formation. Helms said if supplies from Minnesota and Wisconsin are eventually diminished, other sand providers in other states could step forward.

"This has become a very sensitive issue over in Minnesota and Wisconsin," Helms told the IC. "I have been in contact with people in Missouri and they have significant sand deposits that they would love to commercialize. The transportation costs would be greater in a scenario like that, but this issue is really boiling over in Minnesota."

One of the main topics of discussion in Minnesota seems to be whether the state should step in to provide and enforce certain regulations, thereby trumping local governments. Some residents in Red Wing, Minn., a Mississippi River town about an hour south of St. Paul, are petitioning for a recall election after learning that the city's mayor, Dennis Egan, took a position moonlighting as a frac sand industry lobbyist.

Bobby King, a state policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota, said the issue is about local communities in Minnesota and not about what's best for the mining industry or oil industry.

"This movement in Minnesota is based on how the (frac sand) industry has behaved in western Wisconsin," King said. "They've run roughshot over rural communities. Truck traffic has made some people's homes and farms unbearable. Water is being polluted, air is being polluted. In Minnesota, there are a few mines, but not as many, and we want a moratorium placed on mining until we can get some in-depth study to help set standards."

King added that permits, fees and taxes should be used to cover costs associated with damaged roads. King said he expects a bill on a possible moratorium to be introduced to the Minnesota Legislature as early as next week.

The opposition to sand mining in the Gopher State didn't seem to resonate well at the IC meeting on Wednesday.

"This is odd," Goehring said. "We talk about developing our own domestic resources and then we stop it every time we turn around."

Helms told the commission that bringing in sand from further away could potentially be "disruptive to the machinery" in place in the Bakken. DMR statistics showed North Dakota produced a record amount of oil in December after production numbers tapered off slightly late in 2012.

"We don't want to jump to any conclusions," Helms said after the IC meeting. "There are people who are saying that there are legitimate health concerns and water pollution concerns and, if they exist, those need to be taken care of."

Bluffs and hilly areas of western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota -- especially along the Mississippi River -- feature rich deposits of highly pure silica sand which are ideal for fracking purposes, according to experts. Much like Oil Patch traffic concerns among many residents in western North Dakota, some residents in Minnesota and Wisconsin are weary of already existent or potential truck traffic problems and inherent safety concerns in small communities.

Environmental concerns -- especially near scenic Mississippi River areas -- and potential health hazards from silica dust have also been raised.

Mining proponents argue that the industry creates jobs while also helping to feed a process that has aided in putting the U.S. on a road to possible energy independence in the near future.

"We're certainly keeping an eye on what's going on in Minnesota," Ritter said. "We'll see how the situation develops and go from there."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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