Frac sand mining dominated discussions between Houston County commissioners last week.

The March 5 meeting began with a public hearing to lengthen the county's moratorium on silica sand mining and processing. Between 20 and 25 persons attended.

The subject was a resolution citing Minnesota Statute 394.34, giving the county the right to extend a one-year interim ordinance enacted in 2012 for an additional year.

The document stated that the county may end the moratorium sooner at the discretion of the board.

The resolution repeats the reason given for the original moratorium, for "study and adoption of (a) comprehensive plan, zoning and/or other official land-use controls in order to protect the public health, safety and general welfare."

The public hearing lasted about 15 minutes and included comments from four citizens. All spoke in favor of extending the moratorium.

"This is not the sand mining, the aggregate mining that has taken place in Yucatan (township) and Houston County forever," Sara Wexler Mann said, "and the scale and the impact that it stands to have on our communities is different." Mann added that she grew up in Yucatan Township.

Amanda Griggs of Yucatan Township applauded individual members for endorsing a statewide moratorium proposal, and the board as a whole for being willing to extend Houston County's moratorium in order to complete a new local mining ordinance.

"I grew up within these bluffs in this beautiful land," she said.

Donna Buckbee, also of Yucatan Township, presented a petition in support of the moratorium.

"I hope that the Frac Sand Study Committee will look at some of the things that were kind of neglected," she said.

"One was the jobs lost versus the jobs gained through frac sand mining. Tourism and recreation and to some extent agriculture are incompatible with industrial mining. People are not going to come here to spend their tourist and recreation dollars if this is turned into an industrial zone."

Kelley Stanage of the Frac Sand Study Committee also spoke.

"I wanted to commend you all for the work you're doing to protect Houston County residents from the hazards posed by frac sand mining," she said.

"You are one of the few, if not the only county board, that has unanimously chosen to put the health, safety and welfare above the interests of the frac sand industry.

"There's a lot that has yet to be learned about frac sand mining. Your commitment to finding the answers before allowing Houston County to become an industrial region is to be commended."

Commissioners unanimously adopted the resolution.

Five mines planned for county

Later in the meeting, zoning administrator Bob Scanlan stated that Bob Patton of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) had requested more information on some proposed frac sand mines within Houston County.

The EQB is looking into the potential cumulative effect that a series of frac sand mines would have on the region.

Commissioners voted to send a letter to Patton, asking the EQB to designate a state agency as the regulatory governmental unit (RGU) to prepare/compile an environmental impact statement (EIS).

"It would not be in the best interest for one county to take responsibility of conducting an EIS when several counties are involved," the missive states.

The motion asked that county zoning staff sign the request as well.

The request includes: "(We) as a board understand the need for an Environmental Impact Statement as Minnesota Sands, LLC is interested in obtaining approval to operate frac sand mines in Houston, Fillmore and Winona counties.

"Because these proposed mines would span over three southeastern Minnesota counties and involve the same prospector, Houston County requests the Environmental Quality Board to designate a State agency to act as the regulatory government unit (RGU) to prepare an EIS for the proposed frac sand mines."

"I think it's a good idea to have a state agency review that EIS," Scanlan said. "It makes more sense, if they have to look at things going on in three contiguous counties that are in similar situations with these sand mines.

"It takes the burden off of county staff as well. We would be looking at spending some county dollars to look at a third party to review this, too."

"There's been five (Houston County) sites that Minnesota Sands have been looking at to eventually mine for silica sand," Scanlan reported. "They're all within five to eight miles of each other."

Winona County was originally asked to prepare an EIS in response to feedback from an EAW (environmental assessment worksheet).

The secondary document is more comprehensive and expensive to compile.

A similarity between both studies is that the RGU would send the document out for a comment period and have a set number of days to reply to questions raised by the report.

Although individual counties would still need to issue permits for mines, asking the state to take over as RGU has the potential to take some of the decision-making process out of the hands of county officials.

Contacted by the Herald, Scanlan later added that the cost of preparing the EIS would be borne by Minnesota Sands and whatever state agency serves as the RGU.

Scanlan said that the responsibilities of the RGU include:

Scoping or deciding the impacts of the project(s) that will be covered under the EIS.

Preparing a draft EIS based on the work outlined in scoping.

Public review of the draft and preparing a final EIS that responds to public and agency comments and makes any necessary revisions.

And finally, determining the adequacy of the EIS.

Board favors state moratorium

Chairman Justin Zmyewski reported that Houston County commissioners have added their individual endorsements for a state senate bill sponsored by Matt Schmit (DFL Red Wing).

Others who have purportedly signed off on the measure include the Red Wing City Council, elected township officials from Fillmore and Goodhue counties and a city councilor from Wabasha.

The bill would introduce a state moratorium to provide time for Minnesota to study the issues that frac sand mining raises.

Cumulative impacts would be included in the overview and new MPCA standards for the relatively new industry are a likely outcome.

Kjome appointed to planning

Commissioner Dana Kjome was appointed to represent the board on the Planning Commission, replacing Zmyewski.

"Dana was already going to go to some of the Planning Commission meetings because I could not make it to a lot of them," Zmyewski told members prior to asking for the change. There was no further discussion before to the vote.

Other news from the board

Commissioners set the county Board of Equalization meeting for Tuesday, June 18 at 6 p.m. in the Commissioners Room.

Kjome asked if Robert Vogel of Pathfinder CRM of Spring Grove could take a look at the historic Houston County Jail building with an eye towards a potential re-use study.

The board agreed by consensus to ask Vogel to visit the premises. There would be no charge for an initial consultation, Kjome said.

Commissioner Steve Schuldt told the board that he's studying a program called "Adopt an Airport" which is sponsored by MnDOT Aeronautics.

The Friends of the Houston County Airport may want to participate, he added. Commissioners decided to further investigate the program.

Volunteers often do work such as mowing at participating airports. Schuldt said that a hanger is available for $4,000 at the facility where the county could park a tractor/mower.

Auditor Char Meiners reported that the Houston County Airport spent $7,374 on mowing from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012.