WINONA, Minn. — An attorney with a Minneapolis-based business law firm filed a lawsuit this week against Winona County, challenging the county’s ordinance that bans any new frac sand operations. The firm, Larkin Hoffman, is among the largest in Minnesota and has often been associated with frac sand interests, including the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. Gary A. Van Cleve, the lead attorney on the lawsuit, is also representing Iowa-based frac sand corporation AllEnergy in a lawsuit against Trempealeau County, Wis., over the denial of a permit, a case that is before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Winona County’s frac sand ban was passed by the County Board of Commissioners in November 2016 after a 17-month grassroots organizing campaign led by members of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP). It prohibits new mining, processing, transportation or storage of industrial minerals, including the silica sand desired by the oil and gas industry for use in hydraulic fracturing in other states.
Van Cleve’s Larkin Hoffman law firm has frequently acted as a mouthpiece for frac sand corporations in the past several years, repeatedly testifying in favor of the industry and against the concerns of affected residents at Minnesota state legislative hearings and administrative meetings, as well as in Winona County. Peder Larson, a Larkin Hoffman attorney and lobbyist, advocated against the ban before the Winona County Planning Commission in the summer of 2016.
“We view this lawsuit as an attack by outside corporate interests on Winona County’s democratic decision, and it’s outrageous,” said LSP organizer and Winona resident Johanna Rupprecht. “In spite of having a few local strip-mining advocates as plaintiffs, this lawsuit is really an attack on the whole community. It’s clear that the vast majority of people here oppose this industry. In Winona County, we understand that the land has inherent value, and we oppose corporate-backed exploitation of the land and people.”
In 2016, an average of 80 percent of public hearing testimony and written public comments received by Winona County was in favor of the ban. Thousands of residents throughout southeastern Minnesota have been taking action for years at the township, city, county and state levels against frac sand development.
“The County Board made the right decision to enact the frac sand ban requested by the great majority of county residents,” said Wilson Township resident and LSP Winona County Organizing Committee member Joe Morse. “And the legal basis for the ban is very strong—Minnesota law upholds the right of counties to protect residents from harmful industry.”
Ed Walsh, a New Hartford Township resident and LSP member who is a Minnesota- and Illinois-licensed trial and municipal lawyer, also said the ban is well within the law.
“Winona County used its basic, state-granted zoning authority to legally and properly prohibit frac sand mining operations in the County. The County Board relied on the extremely well-researched and excellent legal opinion of the County Attorney when the Board passed this ordinance.”