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Goodhue County in Minnesota beefs up silica sand rules

RED WING, Minn. — Less than six months after updating the county mining ordinance, the Goodhue County Board voted Thursday to approve a series of amendments strengthening regulations for silica sand operations.

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The amendments passed with minor dissention among the five-member board, with commissioners agreeing that more rules were needed to protect residents and the environment before the county mining moratorium expires March 6.

The two most contentious votes were for motions to prohibit silica sand operations within a mile of both populated areas and the high water mark of the Mississippi River. The amendments passed 4-1.

A proposal by citizens group Save the Bluffs originally asked for the one-mile setback to include hamlets and residential subdivisions, but the wording was revised to specifically cover incorporated cities, R1 residential zones and campgrounds.

“This one is a cleaner approach to go,” board Chair Dan Rechtzigel said before the vote.

Commissioner Ted Seifert, who voted against the motion, said he agrees with the setback for cities, “but I think it gets pretty messy past that.”

Seifert also opposed the ban on silica sand operations along the Mississippi River, particularly the notion that doing so would protect tourism along the Highway 61 stretch of the Great River Road.

Bill Mavity, a board supervisor for nearby Pepin County, asked commissioners during the meeting’s public hearing portion to approve the setback in order to match an overlay district that bans silica sand operations on the Wisconsin side of the river.

“We share a tremendous resource,” Mavity said, adding that the Pepin County overlay already prevented a new mining facility that he said would have hurt tourism on both sides of the river.

But Seifert later voiced skepticism of the claim, pointing to a lack of evidence for the impact on tourism by sand mines in Bay City and Maiden Rock.

“I take it with a grain of sand that it really diminishes tourism that much, and our attempts to protect tourism are misguided here,” Seifert said.

Both the Planning Advisory Commission and Mining Study Committee recommended denial of the amendment on the grounds that the one-mile setback failed to cover much of Highway 61 in the county and did not recognize other public waters for protection.

Unanimous decisions

Commissioners found common ground on the remainder of the proposed amendments, voting unanimously to ban silica mining within 1,000 feet of certain public waters and prohibiting the use of flocculants in mineral processing.

The 1,000-foot ban from public waters covers new mineral extraction facilities in the Bluffland Subsection defined by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It encompasses a swath of land in the northeastern part of the county extending west along the Cannon Valley River.

The County Board further approved a motion directing staff to establish a procedure for revoking conditional-use permits in case of violations, and added a goal in the Comprehensive Plan requiring the county to “consider potential impacts on recreation and tourism when evaluating proposed land use changes.”

Thursday’s meeting drew a crowd of close to three dozen residents from across the region, many of whom spoke during the public hearing in favor of tougher restrictions on silica mining.

Pat Tieskoetter with the League of Women Voters Red Wing kicked off public comments by reading the group’s position statement on silica mining.

“We have a hard time reconciling good stewardship of our land and water with mining interests,” she said. “Now that we know the possible consequences of sand mining in this particular region, we will do all in our power to prevent the kind of damage that happens.”

The league held its second silica sand forum after the County Board meeting.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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