ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A state Senate committee approved a one-year moratorium on new silica sand mines on Tuesday as part of a senator’s broader effort to increase oversight of the booming industry.

The Senate Energy and Environment Committee passed Sen. Matt Schmit’s bill over objections from Republicans and industry proponents, who said the moratorium would deter mining companies from expanding in Minnesota.

The bill passed on an 8-4, party-line vote. Schmit said he expects it to come up for its next committee hearing next week. The measure would provide for a statewide study on the health and environmental impacts, and the creation of a regional oversight board to set mining standards. It also would authorize local governments to tax companies that mine, transport or process silica sand.

The hills and bluffs of southeastern Minnesota hold easy-to-mine deposits of highly pure silica sand that is the ideal size, shape and hardness for the oil production technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Drillers mix the sand with water and other chemicals and pump it down into wells, propping open cracks so that oil and natural gas can flow out. But township officers and city officials in affected areas told the committee the state needs to step in and hit the pause button on new mining activity.

So far, those decisions have mostly been left to local governments, many of which passed their own moratoria. Some are due to expire soon.

“They lack the time, expertise, resources and personnel to adequately monitor the industry,” Jeanne Pietig, a member of Wabasha County’s planning and zoning commission, said of local governments. “State oversight of this industry is sorely needed.”

Critics point to western Wisconsin, where the industry has been roaring for several years, as evidence that Minnesota needs to slow the rush toward silica mining while it answers health questions and sets regional standards.

“We just want to make sure that we’re prepared for a second coming of that gold rush,” Schmit said.

But the problem in Wisconsin is that there’s very little local control, said Kirsten Pauly, a mining geologist and consultant for the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. The state has no environmental review requirements for new mining sites. In Minnesota, any site larger than 40 acres triggers an automatic review.

Pauly and other industry representatives fought back against the perception that sand mining is under-regulated in Minnesota. She said the current mix of local, state and federal oversight has both protected the community and benefited the industry.

Fred Corrigan, executive director of the Aggregate and Ready Mix Association of Minnesota, said a statewide environmental study wouldn’t be as effective as the site-by-site studies that local governments require for new mining facilities.

Schmit said the broader study would answer questions about silica mining’s impact on air quality, groundwater, roads and tourism. Those issues kept coming up during his 2012 campaign, he said. The freshman Democrat from Red Wing made the issue his first bill as a state lawmaker.

Scott Sustacek, CEO of Jordan Sands, said he fears his customers will head to Wisconsin after the combination of a moratorium and new taxes.

“It will lock Minnesota out of the energy revolution that’s going on in this country,” Sustacek said.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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