On July 24, the Houston County Board voted to add language to an interim zoning ordinance originally passed on March 12.

That document placed a one-year ban on "the issuance of any conditional use permit for new silica sand mining or accessory uses" so that the county could reevaluate its zoning ordinances controlling an industry new to Houston County, specifically, industrial-scale frac sand mining.

Since that date, a long-running battle has ensued over the conversion of an existing sand mine near Rushford into a frac sand operation.

Tuesday's vote intends to head off further trouble from already-permitted mines morphing into something else while the county goes back to the drawing board.

The moratorium now prohibits "the conversion of existing non-silica sand mining operations into silica sand mining operations," and "all silica sand processing operations that are not expressly authorized by the terms of an existing conditional use permit."

"We have a lot of existing quarries and mines out there that have been registered," Environmental Services director Rick Frank told commissioners.

Those "grandfathered" operations were typically listed in the mid 1970s, he added. "Those typically run from 40 acres to 80 or a little more than that.

"Recently, we have (another) application on file. Looking at these grandfathered operations, they're looking at taking the application as a way to take the existing mines and use them as a way to circumvent the moratorium."

Frank said that he consulted with land-use attorney Jay Squires about the issue.

"It's basically running under the radar of the moratorium and the intent of what the county has been trying to do," he noted. The language of the amendment was suggested by Squires, Frank stated.

Stop-work order revised

Commissioners approved by consent a revision of the stop-work order issued to the Erickson mine near Rushford.

Even though sand may now be removed, the order stipulates that "processing of mined material may not occur."

Specifically, "screening, sorting, crushing, grinding, washing, chemical treatment, polishing, tumbling and asphalt or Redi-Mix plants and production" are prohibited.

In addition, the document states that the 1992 CUP "did not specifically allow blasting of or the use of explosive material. No blasting may occur in conjunction with the proposed operation."

No mention was made of the number of trucks per hour in the revision.

EAW petition filed with EQB

On a related note, resident Donna Buckbee appeared on behalf of those opposed to the new frac sand operation.

Following the partial lifting of the stop-work order on July 17, 288 signatures were collected on a petition calling for an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) on the mine, she said.

That petition was forwarded to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) last week.

"Some people have been saying recently that you're not hearing a lot from our side, while you're hearing a lot from the pro-industry side," Buckbee said.

"But 288 signatures in 48 hours expresses a lot of concern by people about the damage and harm that would be done to the neighborhood and to the community because of this mine."

The EQB is chaired by the governor's office and consists of five citizens and the heads of nine state agencies.

One of its tasks is to review proposed projects that would "significantly influence Minnesota's environment."

Buckbee said the EQB typically takes about five days to respond to an issue such as the Erickson mine.