Against the Grain: Minnesota's Long Slog Toward Dealing With Frac Sand

Activists remain impatient, industry wary, regulators cautious after 18 months of uncertainty, with another year––or more––to go.

The LaGessee frac sand mine in Wisconsin, the nation's top producer of frac sand. Frac sand companies operating in that state are wary that tighter rules in Minnesota, which could come in 2015, could serve as a template for regulators elsewhere. Credit: Jim Tittle/priceofsand.com

As oil-and-gas producers' demand spikes for frac sand, a key ingredient used in hydraulic fracturing, there's mounting concern about the industry's air emissions. Toxic dust kicked up when the sand is produced and transported is a known trigger of lung disease.

For this reason, legislators in Minnesota, the fourth-largest producer of this special sand, committed 18 months ago to revamping air quality regulations for the industry. Staff at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) will release these much-anticipated rules for public comment in the coming months—and they expect a deluge of feedback.

That's because so much is at stake with these new rules. Local activists such as Bobby King see them as an opportunity to fill the nation's data gap on silica sand emissions from facilities handling the material—and to stand up for public health and the environment.

"People are really concerned about air quality," said King, a policy program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota-based environmental group. "They are really expecting the MPCA to come up with something that's meaningful and that ensures the pollution doesn't leave the site of the mine."

Meanwhile, operators believe that their future in the state lives and dies with this wave of regulations, which includes air rules and related measures proposed for environmental impact assessments and reclamation. Even companies in other states, such as neighboring Wisconsin, the top producer of frac sand, are wary that tighter rules in Minnesota could serve as a template for regulators elsewhere.

Aaron Scott, northern region surface mine manager at the frac sand company Fairmount Santrol, wrote in an email to InsideClimate News: "It is essential that...any recommendations concerning proposed regulations be based on fact and sound science and not on misinformation or fear."

In the last five years, the U.S. frac sand industry has jumped from a dozen or so mines and processing sites to hundreds in order to support growing demand from frackers—which use 10,000 tons of silica sand to frack a single well. Fracking is the controversial process of pumping sand, water and chemicals down a well to crack open bedrock and extract oil and gas reserves.

Neither side knows exactly what will be in the final rules presented to the public, but big clues are available from a working draft of the regulations presented by the MPCA to Minnesota's silica sand advisory panel at a Dec. 4 meeting. The state formed this panel to provide feedback on air-quality measures and other rulemaking efforts related to frac sand. The panel includes five members each from local government, citizens, and industry, including Scott.

Based on this 16-page draft report, it's likely air monitors will be required near the property line, or "fence line," of most, if not all, mining and processing facilities to measure a range of small particles drifting into nearby communities. The industry will likely be expected to pay for and operate these monitors.

King welcomes the so-called "fence line" monitoring. So do residents of the college town of Winona, ground zero of Minnesota's frac sand boom. They have repeatedly tried—and failed—to get their City Council to require it for the seven mines, processing sites and transport centers there. Recently, Winona's council members have said they would publicly endorse statewide rules requiring this additional monitoring.

(Winona did succeed in setting up the nation's first monitor to track silica dust emissions that blow off of trucks passing through the city center. Early results show the dust levels are low.)

Fairmount Santrol's Scott wrote that existing data "shows that our sand facilities are effective at controlling emissions." Moreover, he said, "the current regulations which address all emission sources have proven fence line monitoring is not needed."

The three most recent frac sand mines to receive permits in Minnesota already require fence line monitoring. One of them, owned by Tiller Corp., recently received a major fine of $85,000 for a series of violations, including exceeding emissions thresholds.

According to the draft rules, regulators are also looking to require companies to minimize dust emissions in all possible ways, such as covering sand loads coming in and out of facilities by trucks, minimizing the opportunity for emissions from storage piles, and having facilities shut down on windy days.

Many citizens who have attended the rulemaking panel sessions told InsideClimate News that  regulators are "dragging their feet." But MPCA staffer Catherine Neuschler disagrees. "We generally estimate at least 18 months for our rulemaking and we expected this would be longer" to accommodate all the different stakeholders, she said.

Nueschler said she hopes the air rules will be finished by the end of 2015, but added that the timeline will ultimately be dictated by the public response to the rules.

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