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Day 17

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Sand Land

Minnesota Mayor and Fracking Industry Lobbyist Resigns

by STEVE HORN

Usually “revolving door” connotes a transition from a stint as a public official into one as a corporate lobbyist or vice versa.

In the case of Red Wing, MN – a southeastern Minnesota town of 16,459 located along the Mississippi River – its Mayor Dennis Egan actually obtained a gig as head lobbyist for the frac sand industry trade group Minnesota Industrial Sand Council while serving as the city’s Mayor. The controversy that unfolded after this was exposed has motivated Egan to resign as Red Wing’s Mayor, effective April 1.

Without the fine-grained silica frac sand found within “Sand Land” (or manufactured ceramnic proppants resembling it), there is no hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for the oil and gas embedded within shale rock deposits. In other words, frac sand mining is the “cradle” while burning gas for home-heating and other purposes is the “grave.”

Egan is also the former head of Red Wing’s Chamber of Commerce and the public relations firm he runs, Egan Public Affairs, is a Chamber member both at the Red Wing- and state-level. One of his other lobbying clients is Altria, which Big Tobacco’s Phillip Morris renamed itself in Feb. 2003 during its rebranding process with the help of PR powerhouse, Burson-Marsteller.

Many citizens living within the conflines of “Sand Land” in Minnesota, WisconsinIowa, Texas, and Arkansas are deeply concerned about the ecological impacts of frac sand mining and the fracking at-large the sand enables.

Direct respiratory exposure to silica sand can lead to development of silicosis, a lung disease that can lead to lung cancer, akin to exposure to the tobacco smoke that Egan lobbies on behalf of. Exposure to silica sand was deemed a workplace hazard by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in a June 2012 report.

Egan’s Frac Sand Ties Engender Citizen, City Council Backlash

Given this “price of sand,” residents reacted with outrage about the conflict-of-interest and started circulating a recall petition to send Egan packing as Mayor.

So too did Red Wing’s City Council, with three of its members demanding Egan resign at a Feb. 11 meeting and the City Council at-large voting unanimously at that same meeting to hire an outside investigator to dig deeper into the entirety of Egan’s conflicts-of-interest.

The brewing dramatic three-week-old scandal has come to a close, though, as Egan announced he will step down from his mayoral post.

“I believe that a mayor must live to a higher standard than just avoiding conflicts of interest,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “If a mayor’s activities serve as a distraction or roadblock for the city, the public is not well-served.”

Red Wing’s City Council, in turn, decided to drop the investigation on Egan and the recall petition is now null-and-void.

“We understand his decision and wish him well in his new position,” Red Wing City Council President Lisa Bayley told Minnesota Public Radio. “I think he had to make that decision — what we wanted to do. I just don’t think the two positions were compatible and he needed to pick something.”

Red Wing resident and recall petitioner Dale Hanson told the Star-Tribune that he believes this investigation should proceed regardless of Egan’s choice to step down as Mayor “to ensure that if there was corruption, ethics violations, or other vital issues that we have an accurate sense of how much damage may have been done.”

The announcement comes in the aftermath of a major Feb. 20 MN state Senate hearing on frac sand mining. Another one is slated for Feb. 26.

“Heads in the Sand”: Egan Not Alone in Cashing in on Frac Sand Boom

As it turns out, the sordid truth is that corruption and ethics violations with regards to frac sand mining and local governments go far above and beyond Egan and Red Wing. In a Dec. 26 story, the Star-Tribune explained that “at least five public officials in three counties are trying to make money from frac sand.”

Despite this reality and the enormous cradle-to-grave ecological costs and consequences of fracking, public officials have their “heads in the sand” – both literally and figuratively – with regards to the frac sand mining boom.

Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based freelance investigative journalist and Research Fellow at DeSmogBlog.