Winona County Government

The frac sand discussion in Winona County is over.

At least for now.

The Winona County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night voted narrowly to ban industrial sand mining for use in fracking in the county, following years of debate over what the county’s role is in regulating and overseeing the commodity whose popularity related to its use in fracking elsewhere in the country spiked in recent years, only to see markets drive the demand into a near lull in 2016.

The decision, which makes Winona County the first in Minnesota to pass a full ban without restrictions, was approved by a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Marcia Ward and Steve Jacob dissenting.

The vote has been consistent for several months, amid multiple public hearings, working sessions, board discussions, and other gatherings as the county has vigorously debated its future role in playing a necessary role in a process that has invigorated domestic oil production while raising significant concerns over environmental and community health.

Supporters of the ban have been vocal for several years to move the process forward, citing concerns with water and air quality, health effects on county residents and reclamation possibilities, as well as the ability of the Winona County planning department staff to oversee the industry given its size, resources and workload.

Commissioner Greg Olson, the leading proponent of the ban from its first proposal, an issue that in some ways defined his successful re-election campaign, maintained that the majority of the people he heard from supported the ban.

“I’d put more weight on the public that had spoken … than I do a letter from an attorney from Minneapolis,” Olson said, addressing ongoing concerns that an outright ban could invite legal challenges to the county. “I think (the people) have been very unanimous.”

The other commissioners in support of the ban, Jim Pomeroy and Marie Kovecsi, didn’t take much time to reiterate arguments they’ve made in the past that the ban was the most efficient and clean way to move forward in terms of regulating the fine, round sand that in recent years has brought national and international interests to the county seeking to mine and process it.

Ward and Jacob, meanwhile, were equally consistent in their arguments against the ban over the past several months, also maintaining that there will be impending lawsuits over the decision and it was unnecessary to ban a commodity when there are regulatory options.

Jacob, whose motion to postpone the issue until Dec. 27 was voted down, said that a recent letter sent to the county board members by Minneapolis-based law firm Larkin Hoffman on behalf of unnamed clients threatening legal action, the letter Olson had referenced, showed that the board should not approve the ban.

Jacob also said he had spoken with a representative of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council and he thought the board should wait and review.

“With this litigation pending … the wise thing to do would be to take the ordinance that we propose and the pending lawsuits and have the county attorney look at them,” Jacob said.

While Jacob advocated discussing the ban and lawsuit potential with parties threatening to sue the county, and referred to the document as a lawsuit, County Attorney Karin Sonneman clarified that a lawsuit would actually have to be filed to be called such, and the letter also referred to having to first review the decision made by the board.

“There is no lawsuit; it is the threat of a lawsuit,” Sonneman said.

Sonneman said that the process of creating a record of how the board made the decision was exactly the process intended to protect the county against a lawsuit.

Sonneman said that that given the threats of lawsuits by mining industry advocates and opponents of the ban throughout the public discussions at the planning commission and county board levels, a person would have to be living “under a rock” to be surprised by a lawsuit or the threat of a lawsuit.

Jacob and Ward also reiterated their characterization of the debate as urban versus rural interests.

Additionally, Ward said, without offering specific evidence, there wasn’t enough attention given to viewpoints that opposed the ban in the documentation pulled together to support the ban.

“It’s very insulting to all the people who came and all the organizations who support the compromise,” Ward said. “That’s the beauty of democracy; there’s more than one opinion, and no one opinion is right.”

The ban amendment was drafted by Sonneman and drew from several examples, including Goodhue County’s Florence Township’s ban on silica sand mining for fracking and the Land Stewardship Project’s proposed ban language from the spring.

The legal analysis made several additions to the initial language, including making an argument for the amendment as it relates to the values in the county’s comprehensive plan and the purpose of the county’s zoning ordinance.

It also clarifies the distinctions between restrictions on different types of mineral excavation, extraction and land alteration by defining some as commercial minerals compared to industrial minerals.

It would not affect the inter-county or interstate commerce of sand by truck, rail or barge, and would only apply to new mines not grandfathered in, which were previous concerns with the ban.

“I’d put more weight on the public that had spoken … than I do a letter from an attorney from Minneapolis. I think (the people) have been very unanimous.” County Commissioner Greg Olson

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(9) comments



Bruno Borsari

Many Thanks Jim Pomeroy, Greg Olson and Marie Kovecsi. Your wisdom, dedication, leadership and persistence have made history in Winona county. I am enthusiastic to join many others with accolades for the outstanding work you have been accomplishing to counteract effectively corporate power and rather support land stewardship and social justice in Winona Co.

Jay Harrison

[beam] Many thanks to Commissioners Jim Pomeroy, Greg Olson and Marie Kovesci. Unlike industry-apologists Ward and Jacob, you three are forward-thinking leaders who put your constituents (and future generations) ahead of corporate profits. Thank you so much. This is the FIRST county in the entire United States to ban frack-sand mining!!! Yay!!!


Compliments to Commissioners Pomeroy, Olson, and Kovesci for voting on the facts of frac sand mining and recognizing this is not a "urban v. rural"(as stated by Commissioner Jacobs) issue, but a sustaining the earth for present and future generations issue. Being part of a family farm in Winona County I couldn't disagree more with Commissioner Jacobs. Thanks to all who participated in this decision. Joan Redig


If more of us dismissed threats of lawsuits fewer cases would burden us. I trust the county will stand behind itself and ignore insurance advice, if it comes to that. A shame school boards fail us so often.


Add me to the above...+1...

A lamp flickers in the dark!


Mike Kennedy

Thanks to Commissoners Olson, Pomeroy and Chair Kovecsi for putting up with the "other two" and voting to protect all Winona County citizens from this environmentally damaging extraction industry. A special thanks and respect for Attorney Sonneman for knowing her job very well, and putting order to a long and tedious process.


Congratulations! Good work.

Howard Kruger

Thank you Greg Olson, Jim Pomeroy and Marie Kovecsi.
Generations from now you may not be remembered but when future generations hike through this part of the driftless area they will enjoy the bluff land and say to themselves how fortune that someone had the foresight to save this land.

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