Anyone hoping to start a frac sand mining operation in Winona County will need to put their plans on hold — at least for now.
In a 3-2 vote, the Winona County Board of Commissioners passed a three-month moratorium Tuesday on silica sand mining. The board also denied three pending permits in Saratoga Township.
County staff initially proposed both one-year and six-month moratoriums, but community and environmental services director Jason Gilman ultimately said three months should be sufficient to study potential effects of mining the county’s sand.
“We’re going to be aggressive about this,” Gilman said in an interview. “We’re going to get on this as soon as we possibly can.”
Commissioners Mena Kaehler, Jim Pomeroy and Greg Olson voted in favor of the three-month moratorium.
“I don’t want to deny folks the opportunity to monetize a commodity,” Pomeroy said. “At the same time, we don’t want the negative consequences to be such that they outweigh the economic benefits.”
“I think we need to have our ducks in a row before we approve this and move forward,” Kaehler said, referring to the three mine permits the board denied, as well as the five others currently pending. “I’m glad people have this opportunity on their land, but we need to move forward responsibly.”
Commissioners Marcia Ward and Wayne Valentine opposed the moratorium. Both said the county’s existing zoning ordinance will adequately address any new mining operations, combined with a list of 29 permitting conditions recommended by county staff.
“There’s opportunities to make this a really good thing,” Ward said. “Some people are so afraid. When your feet hit the floor in the morning, you have a lot of potential and a lot of threats — that’s life. I think we should move forward.”
“The key word is responsible mining,” Valentine said in an interview. “If they fail to meet those 29 conditions, we could shut them down.”
The three applicants whose permits were denied will be allowed to reapply when a moratorium is lifted, according to county administrator Duane Hebert. The applicants were unable to be reached Tuesday for comment.
Gilman said he and his staff will use the three months to focus on issues like road use and damage, reclamation efforts and environmental issues. Thursday, he plans to meet with representatives from several counties in southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin to learn more about the industry’s regional impact.
Gilman said he and his staff will also try to determine whether an official environmental review — an environmental assessment worksheet or a more intensive environmental impact statement — is necessary for Saratoga Township.
The county board plans to take up the issue of frac sand mining again as the moratorium’s April deadline nears.
Winona County joins Wabasha and Goodhue counties in placing a moratorium on mining the sand favored for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations elsewhere in the country, where the sand is mixed with water and chemicals, pressurized and shot into the earth to release natural gas and oil deposits. Other neighboring counties, including Buffalo and Trempealeau in Wiscon-sin, have chosen to allow mining operations.