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What the frac? SE Minn. could become hotbed for energy extraction

Unimin sand is prized by the fracking industry because the individual grains are very hard and round. Energy companies use "frac sand" to extract natural gas and oil from underground rock in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. (AP Photo/Minnesota Public Radio, Mark Steil)

RED WING, Minn. (AP) — Under the forested bluffs of southeastern Minnesota lies an increasingly sought-after resource prized by the energy industry that’s attracting interest to the state from an increasing number of companies, which isn’t sitting well with some residents.

Energy companies use “frac sand” to extract natural gas and oil from underground rock in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The sand has perfectly round, hard and chemically inert grains, Minnesota Public Radio reported Friday.

One energy company recently purchased land near Red Wing for sand mining, sparking opposition from residents and environmentalists who are mobilizing to try to stop the project.

Tony Runkel, the state’s chief geologist, said the Mississippi River Valley in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois has the potential to turn into a hot spot for frac sand mining. There are already a handful of operations in the scenic region, including across the Mississippi in Wisconsin.

“There’s a huge amount. This sandstone layer that they’re targeting is very, very extensive,” Runkel said. “What’s relatively rare is where it occurs in a setting where it’s close enough to the land surface that it can be mined in an economically feasible fashion and still make money.”

But some residents fear that sand mining will spoil the local environment, said Bruce Ause, retired director of the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center.

“It’s not that they don’t want any development whatsoever,” Ause said. “But I think they want smart development, sustainable development that doesn’t damage the main reason that people live here or want to live here.”

The fracking process pumps a mixture of frac sand, water and chemicals into underground rock formations to break up the stone and release oil and natural gas. It allows affordable access to fossil fuel supplies that once were too expensive to tap.

But it’s been a contentious issue in some states that have fracking operations. Critics argue that chemicals used in fracking may be contaminating water supplies.

Windsor Permian LLC, a division of Oklahoma City-based Windsor Energy Inc., bought 155 acres near Red Wing for $2.6 million earlier this year. The company indicated it would use the land as a “sand pit,” though Goodhue County officials have not yet received any permit applications from Windsor. Company officials did not returns Minnesota Public Radio’s calls for comment and did not immediately return a message left Friday by The Associated Press.

County officials said Windsor Permian hired an environmental consulting company out of St. Paul and has started work on exploratory wells.

Because the sand is buried deep in the ground, the process of extracting it has met environmental and health questions. Earlier this week, more than 100 residents met at the Red Wing public library to express concern.

Keith Fossen said he’s worried about what he’s heard from people across the river in Wisconsin communities close to frac sand mines.

“What it would do to the water tables and flooding basements, I mean, we don’t know ’cause it hasn’t happened here,” said Fossen, who lives near the recently purchased property. “But everyone we’re talking to that has experienced this said it’s just horrible.”

Fossen and other residents plan to ask to the county board to call a moratorium on any further mining before Windsor Permian applies for any permits.

Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News,

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