Minn. Senate panel OKs moratorium on frac sand mines

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A bill approved by a state Senate committee would impose a one-year moratorium on new silica sand mines in Minnesota.

The measure approved by the Environment and Energy Committee also calls for a state environmental impact statement to help gauge the effects of the mines.

It also would also levy a tax to cover road maintenance costs and establish a board to oversee the mines in southeastern Minnesota. Republican critics argued the moves will drive sand mining jobs to Wisconsin. The bill's sponsor, Red Wing DFLer Matt Schmit, maintains the state should take a long-term view, saying, "We have an opportunity to get this right."

The demand for silica sand has exploded since the oil industry began using it in hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and natural gas from rock. Southeastern Minnesota is rich with silica sand deposits and mines have been sprouting in the area. Lawmakers heard testimony last week from residents concerned about possible environmental and health damage and from industry representatives arguing local oversight is preferable to state regulation.

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The energy industry is anxious to use southeastern Minnesota sands to help release petroleum deposits that conventional drilling can't reach. They've likened the mining of that sand to a gold rush. But activists concerned about the environmental effects of the sand mines want to allow time for more studies.