In 'stunning' reversal, Houston County doesn't ban frac sand mining

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A week ago, Houston County looked poised to become the first in Minnesota to ban frac sand mining.

But when the time came Tuesday to officially vote on the proposal, what had been unanimous support from county commissioners simply wasn't there anymore.

The meeting was packed with people on both sides of the debate – and it was contentious at times.

The Houston County News called it "90 minutes of pandemonium and rancor," with public attendees and the commissioners all ending up in heated exchanges. A handful of people were thrown out due to inappropriate behavior.

So, what happened that had so many people upset? Here's a breakdown.

Supports last week, disagreement this week

At a meeting last week, all five Houston County commissioners expressed support for a new mining policy.

The Houston County News reported at the time they voted 5-0 in favor of "iron-clad" language that essentially would have banned silica sand mining in the county.

On Tuesday however, when the commissioners met again to make that support official, things went a different direction.

The five were unable to agree on any wording that would ban or restrict the mining, the Caledonia Argus reports. A proposal needed four votes to pass – neither of the two plans considered did better than 3-2.

The Houston County News called the repeated failed votes "stunning" considering the earlier support.

The Star Tribune says "furious politicking" and lobbying from both sides happened in the 10 days between the two votes.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski, according to the Caledonia Argus, wondered why “in the 59th second of the 59th hour would we back pedal” from last week's decision.

However, the Grand Forks Herald reports one of the three commissioners who voted against it said they don't want industrial mining in the county – they just feel it should be regulated, not banned.

So what happens now?

Basically, the county goes back to previous rules.

A three-year moratorium (basically, a temporary pause in activity) on sand mining that was in place expires Thursday. How the county handles any applications it gets at that point is unknown, the Star Tribune says.

MPR News notes Houston County does not currently have a sand mine within its borders.

What's frac sand, and why are some concerned?

Frac sand is a durable, crush-resistant material used during the fracking process, Geology.com explains.

When the large rock underneath the earth's surface is fractured with water pressure, the frac sand flows into the newly created cracks and crevices and is strong enough to hold the gap open – allowing material such as petroleum to flow through. Silica sand is commonly used.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the biggest health concern with frac sand mining is the potential for tiny airborne particles to enter – and become lodged in – a person's lungs.

However, fracking (and other types of mining) is seen as a potential economic driver.

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