Laverne Massman of Caledonia Township speaks to Houston County commissioners during a Jan. 28 public hearing. PHOTO: CRAIG MOORHEAD/ SPRING GROVE HERALD
Laverne Massman of Caledonia Township speaks to Houston County commissioners during a Jan. 28 public hearing. PHOTO: CRAIG MOORHEAD/ SPRING GROVE HERALD

On Jan. 28, county commissioners voted unanimously to extend their moratorium on frac sand mining. The interim ordinance, which forbids new silica sand mining permits in Houston County, will now run until March 5, 2015, if needed. In addition, the resolution reserves the board's right to further lengthen the moratorium if authorized by state law.

Commissioners convened a public hearing on the matter before voting, which was attended by approximately 16 persons. All eight of the residents who spoke during that session urged the board to extend the moratorium.

Earlier, commissioners voted to send a letter to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB). The missive asked that group to provide language that the county can use in an ordinance that would ban frac sand mining, if they find that necessary.

"I hope you will use this year to put together an ordinance that will prohibit frac sand mining in Houston County," Ken Tschumper of La Crescent Township said during the hearing. "I think that will be entirely consistent with what people want in Houston County." Tschumper said that 80 percent of residents want the county to remain free of frac sand mines.

Kelly Stanage of Houston Township said, "I want to commend you on your decision to take this on at the board level. A topic of this level of importance really does need leadership at the highest levels of government...."

Donna Buckbee of Yucatan Township said that Tschumper's estimate of support for the industry might be a little high. "Only about 5 percent of the people of this county want frac sand mining," she stated. Buckbee added that her numbers are based on door-to-door visits with residents.

Lorraine Culver of the city of Houston warned of dangers to public safety that industrial scale truck traffic could pose. "How much can we let these people hurt us with their frac sand mines?" she asked. "We should say, 'We don't want to be part of all this.'

Laverne Massman of Caledonia Township said, "I think this thing goes a lot farther than all of us. It's our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that may suffer from the bad consequences. This county is beautiful. I see no reason why it should be torn up for a few people that would like to have this frac sand mining going on. The rest of us are going to pay the price and suffer because of it."

Massman's spouse, Julia, commented as well. "Don't rush into anything," she cautioned. "This is a new adventure, and there are negative things coming to light constantly..." Contaminated soil and water are two issues among many, Massman noted. Comparing the search for energy to the challenges that World War II posed for the nation, she said, "Surely we can win an energy fight, and we must do it safely. Take your time, think about it, and (I) thank you for the consideration that you have given this topic."

Sara Wexler Mann of Yucatan Township said, "I love everything about Houston County. I love the agriculture, the tourist economy, the coffee shops and restaurants, and just the general community that you find here... I've spent the last two and a half years dedicated to stopping this industry from taking that away. It's not compatible for our economy. It's not why people live here."

Steve Hartwick of Money Creek Township said he supported the request for legal language that would allow a ban.

There were no other speakers at the hearing, and the board held no further discussions before voting.

Commissioners enacted the interim ordinance in 2012 to give themselves time to study the issue of frac sand mining and consider new land use ordinances. Several Minnesota counties are now awaiting EQB recommendations and model ordinances to help them regulate the burgeoning industry.

Houston County Environmental Services director Rick Frank was on hand when the board voted to ask for language that would allow a ban. He suggested that commissioners check with their land use attorney on the matter, since it could easily spark a lawsuit.

The board faces some heavy lifting ahead. Frank told the Herald that on Dec. 13, 2013, the EQB released a first draft of a massive document entitled, "Tools to Assist Local Governments in Planning for and Regulating Silica Sand Projects." That report is 165 pages in length, and encompasses a wealth of study by numerous state agencies. Sections focus on air quality, water standards, transportation, operations, setbacks and buffers, and impacts on natural vegetation and wildlife. The public comment period on the study ended on Jan. 27.