Grassroots activists and some local and state governments are responding to frac sand mining. (More)

Frac sand mining has generated a ground swell of grassroots activism to counter the influence of corporations both small and large who have a distinct advantage in lobbying local governments. Yesterday we looked at the issues and unknowns of this type of mining. Today we’ll look at the responses of grassroots activists and governments.

A Documentary Film is made:

Jim Tittle is a filmmaker. He’s just the kind of person that gives mining companies big headaches. He has made a one-hour documentary called The Price of Sand. In his own words:

Two years ago, an oil company bought a tract of land in near my mother’s house, in rural Goodhue County, Minnesota. The prospect of an open pit mine led to the formation of an opposition group, a series of public meetings, and a temporary county moratorium on frac sand mining.

I’m a filmmaker, so I visited people who live near existing mines and interviewed them. They told me stories–intense truck traffic, plummeting property values, toxic silica dust–a catalog of complaints that surprised me with its variety and intensity. I made clips from the interviews and posted them on YouTube. [These clips later became his documentary.]

The goal of this project: find the real price of frac sand. Not just in dollars, but in friendships, communities and the future of our region.

Here is the trailer for The Price of Sand which has been shown around the area and to legislators at the Minnesota State Capitol:

Conflicts and Activism:

Former Red Wing, Minnesota Mayor Dennis Egan was also a frac sand lobbyist. Oops. Maybe once upon a time this dual employment would not have caused any problems. Faced with a recall effort and an inquiry into conflicts of interest, he eventually resigned as mayor and kept his industry job:

Two weeks after Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan insisted that he could ethically work a second job as a frac sand lobbyist, the mayor will step down in the face of a recall effort and a City Council investigation of his business relationship with the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council.

Some of his constituents, upset by the frac sand mining boom and its impact on their rural lifestyles were not at all pleased with him.

Winona citizens have organized themselves to get answers. Grassroots activists, community organizing, web-sites, social media and demonstrations have all played a part. The city has had moratoriums on frac sand mining to give them time to study the impacts. The last such moratorium was put in place in 2012 and expired on March 13, 2013.

The Sand Point Times website plays an important role in educating and informing citizens:

C.A.S.M. (Concerned About Silica Mining) is a group of citizens in the City of Winona and in Winona County, Minnesota who are concerned about frac-sand mining and related operations in our region. Local communities on both sides of the Mississippi River have been caught off guard by the unbelievably sudden proliferation of mines and related activities. We need answers to important questions, and adequate safeguards must be put in place. We welcome your input and involvement in helping us protect the health, safety and welfare of citizens in the Winona area, while preserving this area’s unique beauty, natural resources, and way of life.

Their website is packed full of information and videos. They have a list of questions they think need to be answered by all frac sand mining companies. Here are just a few but it’s worth reading them all:

— How many trucks per day are you planning to send out on our local roads?
— How do you propose to pay for replacing roads damaged by the intensity and frequency of the frac-sand trucks?
— How deep do you plan to mine?
— What does this mean for our groundwater?
— How much water are you removing from the water table?
— Since the sand is a natural filter for our water, what do you think we can use to continue to filter our water once the sand is removed and sold?

(And one of my favorites)

— One plan reviewed has “Call 911” listed first for the emergency plan. Do you think Three Mile Island had “Call 911” listed first?

The City of Winona has a page devoted to Frac Sand Updates. The City Council lists four ordinances; “Mining, Moisture Testing, Setbacks and Transportation Impact Analyses and Road Use Agreements” enacted as a result of studies conducted during the moratorium.

Winona illustrates the advantages that mining companies come with. Companies have ‘experts’ while city councils and citizen groups need to educate themselves and sort through claims, impacts and promises. Some of Winona’s activists were not pleased with the results of the studies.

On April 29, 2013 35 protestors were arrested:

The Winona Police Department arrested 19 people at the city’s commercial dock, after they were asked multiple times to leave the private property. Officers than responded to a frac sand processing plant on Winona’s west end, where they arrested another 16 people for trespassing there.

Winona Catholic Workers organized the protest, reaching out to area residents who oppose the frac sand industry, as well as others in the region’s Catholic Worker community.

Not all of these protestors were local citizens:

I proceeded to break down the [police] blotter’s tally by region and came up with some startling results: 9 came from outlying MN; 7 from IA; 7 from WI; 2 each from MI and MO; 1 each from IL, NC, MS and AZ. Of the 9 from outlying areas in Minnesota, 5 came from Minneapolis. That left a whopping 4 protesters from Winona proper. While I understand the protest was in response to the frac sand industry in general, the protest found its way to a particular property that is engaged in the industry and is located in Winona.

This wasn’t the first protest. Local businesses are also weighing in:

Andrew Puetz, General Manager at Chrysler Winona – whose new, two million dollar dealership was relocated to downtown Winona as part of an economic revitalization attempt – spoke about the “economic fallout” his company is experiencing as a result of increased frac sand operations and traffic: “The sand affects the paint, air filters, and underside of the cars. We are regularly asked by customers about what color our cars are and are spending $2,000 a month just to keep them clean. There are serious effects on the exterior of our vehicles [from the sand]; what is that doing to our lungs and everything else?”
[…]
One thing is clear—the City of Winona is unprepared to deal with a powerful industry as well as a mobilizing citizenry. Last spring, frac sand mine owners and operators were able to sneak through plans without public input and with little oversight from regulatory agencies. Now, Winona is inundated with frac sand operations and the city has on its hands, in the words of Winonan Mike Leutgeb-Munson, “a public safety disaster that is perpetuated by the town laying out a welcome mat to industry to destroy our bridge and our town.” His sentiments were met with approving nods by most of the room. The fears of frac sand operations, largely confirmed by what has happened in other towns and counties, like Chippewa County, Wisconsin, are that the floodgates are opening and it is not going to be good for most businesses, homeowners, farmers, residents, and tourists.

Buffalo County, Wisconsin residents are also active:

In recent weeks, [Fall 2012] residents of Buffalo County convinced a county board to reject two frac sand facility proposals from Menomonie-based Glacier Sands LLC, one for a processing plant and loading facility 1,200 feet from the Cochrane-Fountain City School.

Allamakee County, Iowa citizen activists call themselves “The Protectors Against Frac Sand Mining.”

Allamakee County Protectors is a group of concerned Iowans leading the fight against Frac Sand Mining in the state of Iowa. Originally, it started as a group from Allamakee County, but the issue became statewide very quickly. The group secured a moratorium “to buy time to formulate rules to protect the environment as well as public health and welfare.”

Moratoriums:

Moratoriums, as noted above, can buy citizen activists the time to educate and inform themselves, attract more followers and pressure city or county governments to temporarily halt the rolling out of the welcome mat to mining companies while their issues are addressed.

Moratoriums can give government entities the same opportunities to become educated and informed. They could even bring in experts and academic scientists to bring some facts to bear on their deliberations. Elected officials can listen to concerned citizens from all sides of the issue. The anti-frac sand mining activists are concerned with air and ground water quality, traffic, property taxes and protection of both the natural beauty of the sandstone bluffs and their rural lifestyles. Some landowners want the right to sell or lease their land to mining companies because they need the money. Unemployed citizens hear jobs and say, “Bring it on.” Mining company owners use the moratorium time to reassure government officials that, “It’s just sand.” Being a government official is not easy in the face of so many competing agendas.

Trout:

Trout may be the last hope for regulation of frac sand mining in Minnesota:

Environmental activists who pushed ambitious legislation to slow the advance of frac sand mining in Minnesota have been soundly defeated on their central proposals and, with less than two weeks left in the 2013 legislative session, are clinging to a fragile game and fish amendment as their last hope for a substantial breakthrough.

The amendment, which would block excavation within a mile of any trout stream in southeastern Minnesota, is strongly backed by Gov. Mark Dayton as a way to prevent an explosion of sand mining in a region where the state has invested millions of dollars over decades to nurture a blue-ribbon fishery.

In one last push for this legislative session a coalition of groups, including Trout Unlimited is urging voters to write and call their legislators and the Governor.

The surviving helpful measure before the Legislature would disallow frac sand mining within 5,000 feet of fragile springs, trout streams and groundwater tables. It’s being promoted by Trout Unlimited and has the support of the Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and Governor Dayton. (But Dayton met with mining representatives yesterday while reportedly refusing to meet with anti-sand representatives.)

The mining people have the automatic support of essentially all Republican legislators, plus a strong segment of the DFL traditionally associated with mining interests.

Summary:

The community activists are inspired and inspiring. The unemployed and the poor landowners have my deep sympathies. The government officials have my sympathy too. It may be that what we are watching is the tragedy of the commons yet again.