Supreme Court Upholds Winona Frac Sand Ban

A years-long fight over a riverside frac-sand mining operation in Winona, Minn., ended when the U.S. Supreme Court refused on January 11 to overturn a ban on frac sand mining by Winona County. 

The refusal leaves few options for Minnesota Sands, which filed the appeal. Its lawsuit was first filed four years ago, shortly after the ban was enacted in 2016. The Winona County District Court upheld the ban, as did the Minnesota Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision in 2018. In March 2020, the seven-member state Supreme Court affirmed lower court rulings that let the ban stand, with two justices dissenting in full and one dissenting in part.

The explosion in hydraulic fracking in the early 21st century made certain types of silica sand a valuable commodity and fueled a race to find and exploit sites where the sand could be found. The sand is termed a “proppant” by the oil industry since it props open the microcracks created by injections of pressured fluids and frac sand, through which oil and gas flow to the surface of a well. 

Many of these frac sand sites turned out to lie near parts of the Upper Mississippi River, which made exploiting them both convenient and cost-effective because barge transportation could be used.

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But nearby residents and elected officials often opposed such operations, as well as some conservation groups. 

The Land Stewardship Project said in a statement, “The people of Winona County and throughout southeastern Minnesota have organized to oppose the frac sand industry for many years because this industry is incompatible with stewardship of the land and with healthy, thriving communities. In passing the ban, the Winona County Board of Commissioners was fulfilling the proper role of local government, listening to the will of the people and acting boldly to protect the common good for both people and the land.”

The ban continues to allow mining for lesser-grade construction sand.