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Scott Rall: On mining and all the big questions

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

I have lived almost my entire live in the farm county of southwest Minnesota. Minnesota is a state of great diversity. In the south you can see for miles and up north you can’t see 30 feet in the state forests and woodlands.

It was more than 10 years ago that I was talking to Minnesota Sen. Jim Vickerman about a whole host of outdoor topics and he asked me what I thought about wolves. He explained that he had to make some voting decisions about wolves, and because there were none in his district he was unfamiliar with the subject matter and was looking for some guidance from local sportsmen.

I, too, had to plead the fifth as I did not know much about wolves at the time. It became clear to me that our government representatives have to make decisions about subjects that they know very little about and that don’t have a direct effect on their constituents

There is another issue that affects the entire state but of which has very little, if any, effect directly on southwest Minnesota. The subject comes in many forms but it all falls under the heading of mining.

About the only thing mined in out part of the state is gravel. We think of a gravel pit as a shallow hole in the ground that fills with water when the mining operation is over. Gravel mining has resulted in some really good fishing ponds in the flatland country of Nobles County.

The mining issues that are front and center in Minnesota have a far-reaching impact on what Minnesota will look like in the next 100 years. There are two different and separate kinds of mining expansion issues on the table in Minnesota at this time.

The first is silica sand mining. These sands are used in the oil extraction process taking place in the Bakken Oil Fields of North Dakota. A silica sand mine has been explained to me as a small mine that might cover less than 40 acres. There is great concern over this type of mining in southeast Minnesota where these sands are present. Residents there think the possibility of permanent environmental damage to the cold water trout streams in the area is a very possible threat.

They fear contamination of these cold water fisheries resources should be reason enough to prohibit this type of mining activity completely.

Other concerns are the fact that these sands will be transported commercially over road by trucks. They fear damage to the road infrastructure and the resulting dust caused by the hundreds of trucks needed to carry the mined sands to their end-use location.

Some residents fear a deterioration of their quality of life if silica sand mines pop up all over the region.

The other form of mining under review in Minnesota is copper mining. This is a very different kind of mine when compared to silica sand mining, in that it might cover several square miles or more and is an open pit mine that will forever change the landscape. The same concerns apply about the damage to the environment and possible pollution that could result. Questions emerge, like: “Can the waste water be treated and can it be contained as to not pollute ground water and surface water assets?” Basically the forest and soil are scraped off and mining resources are removed.

In both of these issues it is a matter of how many mines and where they will be located. As a resident of southwest Minnesota, a mine way up north does not have a direct effect on me, but that is no reason to not care if and how it can be done without damaging our state’s natural resources. Each of the matters is being reviewed by the DNR.

I spoke with the DNR Commissioner, Tom Landwehr, at the state meeting of Pheasants Forever a few weeks back about this very subject. I asked him if it could be done safely and what protections would be put in place.

He told me that if the department feels it cannot be done safely, then they will not issue the necessary permits. If it can be done in a manner that meets all of the required safeguards and the ending result is protected natural resources and an improved economic climate in the state, then the necessary permits will be issued.

This would only happen after all of the environmental review has been completed and safety concerns are satisfactorily addressed. The process does allow for public input for all Minnesota residents, and if you feel strongly about these mining issues then by all means make your opinions known.

It is hard for a rank-and-file sportsman from Nobles County to get a really good grip on issues like these as we are so far out of the loop from a geographic location point of view. I can really get behind the idea of an energy independent North American continent. The places we get our oil from would in many cases like to see us and our way of life forever ended. The oil fields of North Dakota have the ability to get us to that oil independence position but they need silica sand to do it.

In the end, I hesitate to take a position on mining. Minnesota is a mining state. This is why a large part of the state is called the Iron Range. We have mined here for decades and I think we can expand those opportunities if done correctly. If, after a complete and in-depth review process is completed, the powers that be conclude our resources are not at risk, then mining will become an even larger part of Minnesota’s way of life.