Randy Schenkat: Frac sand mining requires questions to be asked

2011-12-28T00:00:00Z Randy Schenkat: Frac sand mining requires questions to be askedBy Randy Schenkat | Community columnist Winona Daily News
December 28, 2011 12:00 am  • 

For most of my life, I’ve been one for asking questions. My fifth-grade teacher called me “Randy Yeah, But....” Just 40 years ago this December, I was finishing a semester at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and heard this retort from a professor about my inquisitiveness: a fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer. 

Well, here are some foolish questions on frac sand mining:

As I understand it, the Winona Chamber of Commerce wants no moratorium, opting instead to go ahead “full tilt” into mining.

I wonder how that diverse group of businesses that makes up the Chamber reached that decision. It seems there could be lots of trade-offs that might hamper the burgeoning tourism industry. Were there discussions about mining throughout Winona County that weighed what might be potential negative impacts on the local economy?

I heard testimony at the Planning Commission hearing on the number of engineers, professors and other professionals recruited here because of the area’s stunning beauty. 

Might that appeal dry up if we become a mining town? Where is the Chamber’s initiative on promoting innovative, environmentally friendly business and industry in the area?

From attending some of the meetings of late, it seems that county commissioner and planning commission member Marcia Ward thinks that requirements in the permit process will be sufficient.

It seems that some thoughtful work was done in drafting those permit applications. 

However, I remember the tragedy of the commons — where everyone acts for themselves and the greater good is forgotten until it’s too late and irreparable damage has been done. 

Each one of the mines might slip by in the permitting process, but what about the cumulative effect? When might there be too many mines? Can that be regulated, should it be and who might regulate that?

I heard that the three 20-acre mines in Saratoga Township would fill 180 semitrailers of sand per day. There are already five more mine applications — would that mean 300 more loads a day?

I think of scenario planning, and I know some people who work with it. It imagines different scenarios — like what if there were 20 mines, 40 mines, 80 mines or 200 mines? Remember looking at the maps of sand deposits? There’s lots of sand in Winona County. Can we envision which roads the semis would travel on and how many trucks would be on those roads? Where would that sand be washed, processed and loaded? It seems that would have to involve some Winona city streets — which ones would they be? I remember the diorama at the Winona County Historical Society of the riverfront at the height of the lumbering days. Will we have sand piles as high as those lumber piles down at the river?

It seems that scenario planning could help all of us visualize what some of this might look like. Can the county do some scenario planning and share it with the public before it goes ahead with opening the flood gates to frac sand mining? 

Are there scenarios that we all could live with that don’t hugely compromise the quality of life here?

There’s a lot of big money at stake here. I think we’ve been led to believe this is just some small farms selling off some rights to mine sand. 

Do we know anything about how big mining interests are getting involved? How much of the money to be made stays local?

As I write this, I look up at a beautiful colored print I have on my bookcase of Aldo Leopold’s shack where he made the observations for his classic, “A Sand County Almanac.” 

He certainly wasn’t envisioning what a frac sand county like Winona County might become. 

So perhaps another question to ask is where is the land ethic that Leopold called our attention to? I’ve heard biologists claim the Winona County environs are of a national park stature. 

Could capitalizing on this uniqueness yield more long-term gain than some short riches from sand?

So, I could be the lone fool asking questions, but, frankly, it’s only going to be questions from citizens — questions that will take some time and research to answer, questions that are important to the long-term quality of life in Winona County — that will make the case for a moratorium. If the county board thinks all the questions have been asked and are answered to their satisfaction by Jan. 3, the mining will begin.

I’d welcome you in joining me being foolish.

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