The most telling clue as to just how divisive the issue of frac sand mining has become in southeastern Minnesota is what happened when Houston County's Frac Sand Study Committee began its April 12 meeting. It took over 20 minutes just to approve the agenda.

"We're not taking votes today, because we don't have any voting or governing authority," county board chair Justin Zmyewski told members.

"If you can't come to a consensus then bring it up to the board. The board is the final decision maker."

Zmyewski was nominated to chair the study group for 2013, but not approved. A majority of the 12 members chose planning commission member Glenn Kruse to lead the sessions. Kruse served as vice chair last year. Zmyewski was elected as vice chair for 2013.

Even the suggestion over whether or not to vote on key points brought debate.

Member Steve Beach said, "At least we can vote so we can have an idea on how people are leaning."

"Why would you not have a vote?" county engineer Brian Pogodzinski asked.

The issue was left idle after Kruse said, "Let's keep this somewhat informal."

Last month, county commissioners voted to extend the interim ordinance that prohibits new frac sand mine permits for up to another year.

The study group was impaneled last year to make recommendations for new mining ordinances.

Two sets of rules?

Houston County is currently pursuing one set of rules for "industrial" mines and another for "commercial" mines. Frac sand operations will be included in the former, while aggregate mines are in the latter category.

Members discussed a proposed rule that would require commercial mines that are classified as non-conforming to re-register yearly with the county. Those "grandfathered" operations do not meet some aspect of the current ordinance, such as filing a reclamation plan.

The possible use of an interim mining permit rather than a conditional use permit (CUP) also brought an extended debate.

One item that found consensus was to request a written legal opinion on the effects of interim use (IUP) versus conditional use permits (CUP) for mining in general.

Generally, conditional use agreements are transferable when a property is sold. Interim use permits are not.

Current commercial mines, which already operate under a CUP would be allowed to continue as "grandfathered in." Only those operations that seek to expand or make changes to things such as their overall footprint would need a new permit.

Road-use agreements who decides?

Road-use agreements for county thoroughfares also brought out many opinions during the four-hour long meeting.

An ordinance copied from Olmsted County was proposed as a model. That document cited any mine which results in over 30 heavy loads (round trip) per day as needing to sign an agreement, but a waiver for "temporary uses associated with road construction," is included in the language.

Pogodzinski said that there should be some flexibility depending on the design of the roadway.

He stated that while heavy trucks (over seven tons per axle) do thousands of times more damage per trip than automobiles, certain county highways are built to withstand 10-ton loads.

"I don't think we want to put this burden on our construction mines," committee member Kelley Stanage said.

Another line from the same ordnance brought some arguments. A second legal opinion from the county's land-use attorney was asked for when members noted that the county engineer would have "final authority" to decide which mines need to have an agreement to haul on county roadways.

Some attendees argued that the "final" word on the matter should be reserved for county commissioners.

Another aspect of road-use agreements and haul route proposals concerned jurisdictional responsibility.

Most members argued that neighboring townships and counties must be consulted prior to permit approval.

Banning washing, is it legal?

A prohibition on washing industrial sand and the use of flocculants by those mines was another sore spot.

Although the Houston County Board of Commissioners has already passed a resolution prohibiting the practice (as well as not to allow flocculant-contaminated mine spoils to be brought back into the county from outside wash sites), some argued that it could be problematic from a legal standpoint.

The committee reached a consensus to ask Fillmore County representatives to explain their rationale (from a legal standpoint) when they passed an identical statute.

Density limits, are they needed?

However, members did not agree on density limits. Committee Member Eric Johnson argued that the CUP process alone should be used to decide whether a frac sand mine is too close to others.

"We could leave it up to the conditional use process to determine the density," Johnson said, "without having a number."

Beach said that placing a density limit on commercial mines would be "devastating." For an undisclosed reason, the samples included a countywide limit of six for both industrial and commercial mines.

After stating that the number needs to be dropped from the commercial ordinance, Beach agreed with Johnson that limits on the total number of industrial mines should be left open to CUP interpretation.

Zmyewski said that the CUP permitting process could end up being just as arbitrary as a countywide limit on the total number of active silica sand mines.

Stanage argued strongly for a limit on the total number of frac sand mines.

"We can easily come up with some justification for a number. There are all sorts of information out there with regard to cumulative effects," she said.

"They (the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board) deemed it necessary to group together eight mines that were within 10 or 20 miles of one another... as important enough to order an environmental impact statement."

Noting the fact that Fillmore County has put such a limit in place already, several members favored a set number.

If the sample language is passed by the county board, Houston County could allow no more than six active frac sand mines.

One of those would need to be reclaimed before an additional facility would be allowed to open.

Besides environmental effects and road damage, the ability of county staff to oversee more than six industrial mines was called into question.

Other issues discussed

Environmental assessment worksheets (EAW) and environmental impact statements were also discussed.

For mines that are small enough not to trigger a requisite EAW, some members opted to recommend added latitude for the county, substituting the word "may" for "shall" for an EAW requirement.

Allowing "normal" noise levels of up to 65 dB (decibel) at the property line for both types of mines received little debate.

After adjourning, members allowed several citizens to speak. All who did so favored strict controls over frac sand mines.

What's next for the group?

The committee set a tentative date of Friday, April 19 at 9 a.m. for their next meeting.

As an advisory committee, these meetings are open to the public although since they are not public hearings, the committee does not have to take public input if they do not wish to.

The committee is made up of the following appointed individuals: commissioner Justin Zmyewski of Houston, commissioner Steve Schuldt of Caledonia, Arlyn Pohlman of Caledonia, Dick Gulbranson of Spring Grove, planning commissioner Glenn Kruse of Eitzen, planning commissioner Bruce Lee of Houston, county engineer Brian Pogodzinski, environmental services director Rick Frank, zoning administrator Bob Scanlan, Rich Schild of Houston, Kelley Stanage of Houston, Steve Beach of La Crescent, and Eric Johnson of Houston.

Alternates are: Allen Schulze, Tom Lisota, John Griggs, Ron Garrison, Bets Reedy and Kent Holen.