Will Winona County frac sand mines EIS signal greater scrutiny of Minnesota Proppant project?


The strange case of Fracsandville Lobbyist/ Red Wing Mayor Dennis Egan and the request by Minnesota state agencies for an EIS for two related frac sand mines in Winona County are both grabbing headlines in the Star Tribune.

Meanwhile, the Winona Daily News reports today in Third review for Winona County silica mine is open for comment that yet another mine is proposed for the St. Charles aarea.

Tony Kennedy’s article, In a first, Minnesota asks Winona County to assess risks of frac sand, aludes to the scale of the project–and its relationship to another controversial frac sand mining and processing proposal in St. Charles. He writes:

In a critical test of Minnesota’s approach to frac sand mining, two state agencies have called on Winona County to order an in-depth study of environmental and health risks associated with a cluster of proposed mines and processing sites.

The commissioners of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Health each published formal comments this week strongly urging the county to require a full environmental impact statement before deciding whether to approve at least two silica sand mines proposed by Minnesota Sands LLC. The Winona County Board will have final say on the study.

It’s the first time either state agency has called for such an in-depth, precautionary study of frac sand operations, which have been booming in southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin as firms demand the sand suitable for new drilling techniques that have revitalized the U.S. oil industry. The industry has created concerns as well as jobs, with two MPCA commissioners noting possible contamination of drinking water, lung disease and unsafe truck traffic. . . .

Central to the debate is whether the proposed Dabelstein and Yoder mines in rural Winona County should be considered “connected” to at least three other proposed frac sand facilities within a 5-mile radius, including sites in Fillmore County. The cluster could also include a major processing and rail load-out facility near St. Charles. A group of investors is pushing that project, but the group hasn’t formally applied for a permit. . . .

While no formal application has been made, a draft EAW by Minnesota Proppant appeared, then vanished last year, in apparent violation of the state’s data practices law. On December 9, 2012, Sarah Squires reported in the Winona Post article, MN Proppant environmental data exposed:

A planned development on the edge of the city of St. Charles could become the largest frac sand processing and transportation plant in the nation. Minnesota Proppant’s plans include a rail spur, sand processing facility, and a six-mile underground pipeline that would bring sand to the site.

The development proposal has drawn sharp criticism from nearby residents, who fear the plant could change the character of the rural setting and create large volumes of semi-truck traffic in the area. While Minnesota Proppant has yet to formally apply for any of the many permits needed to begin construction at the site, it has begun an environmental review called an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). The company submitted some data for the EAW to Winona County in October, but attempted to redact the information shortly after, asking that the county consider the data to not be public, nor release it to any citizens. After Winona County officials sought an opinion from the state about whether the data should be considered public, it released the information to the Winona Post last week. [emphasis added]

The information in the EAW draft in question is incomplete. EAWs require answers to more than 30 questions related to environmental effects, and other project details, and many of the questions in this document are unanswered.

Bluestem has obtained a copy of that incomplete draft and posted it online (see embed below). Reading the draft answers some of our questions about earlier reports about St. Charles city council meetings in which it was difficult to understand why citizens were upset–and why they were making certain claims about the Minnesota Proppant project. (This is the St. Charles project that Kennedy brings up in his article.)

In early January, the Post Bulletin’s Brian Todd reported in St. Charles group seeks silica sand ban:

In a city council chamber packed with men, women and children, several St. Charles residents pleaded with the board to immediately ban all silica sand mining, processing and transportation within the town.

“We are not asking for due diligence,” said Dan Hursh, a local resident. “We are asking for action.”

Hursh said he had hoped the council would not just vote to keep Minnesota Proppant’s silica sand processing and transportation project from becoming a reality. He also hoped the council would vote to stop any future silica sand projects within the city. “I am amazingly disappointed.”

And why was he so disappointed? Todd reports that the mayor of St. Charles played possum about the Minnesota Proppant project, despite massive local opposition:

Travis Lange of Concerned Citizens of St. Charles said his group has collected 939 signatures, which represents 51 percent of the turnout in St. Charles from November’s election. Lange said responses from those signing the petition show 80 percent of residents don’t want the project.

The problem with the group’s request, Mayor William Spitzer said, is there is no proposal before the city. The Minnesota Proppant project would be built in St. Charles Township, meaning the township and Winona County have jurisdiction over the project. “We’re monitoring the situation at this point,” Spitzer said. “I still think we need a lot of questions answered.”

Oh, wherever did hundreds of citizens get the idea that the City of St.Charles might have jurisdiction over the massive frac sand processing facility proposed for St. Charles Township? And why did their concern motivate hundreds to sign the petition? Where’s this stuff coming from?

Public records and earlier meetings. Those sillies.

In a February 4 article in the Star Tribune, Sand mine rules melt under pressure, Kennedy reported:

In southeastern Minnesota, another sand company’s annexation proposal has caused an uproar in St. Charles. The company controls a large site in the township of St. Charles. Even though the township is hostile to the project, company officials want the neighboring city of St. Charles to annex the land and issue an operating permit.

“There’s so much money to be made … they are just persistent,” said Jim Ruhberg, chairman of the township board.

Page 13 of the draft EAW notes that Minnesota Proppant’s proposal is based on annexation of the township by St. Charles:

This project plan has been based on the property being annexed into the City of St.Charles and being zoned Light Industrial. This zoning designation and the proposed facilities are compliant and per the Comprehensive Plan of the City and County.

Indeed, the earlier owners of the rail site, Farm2Rail, had asked for annexation, the Pioneer Press’s Jill Jensen reported in Some neighbors oppose proposed St. Charles frac-sand facility, back in June 2012 (via the Post Bulletin):

. . . a group of neighbors on Cherokee Road oppose the project, voicing concerns about declining home values, as well as possible traffic delays, health problems and environmental effects such as sand spills.

Spitzer said the city council approved an environmental assessment worksheet Tuesday night, which will look at the facility’s impact on traffic and the environment. The next step would be to annex Farm2Rail’s property into the city so it would have the benefits of sewer, water and police services like any St. Charles resident, Spitzer said.

Given that history, perhaps Spitzer might better ask himself why people would believe his statement that nothing’s on the table. Nothing except the project’s history, and his own statements about annexation back when other owners were pushing it.

And that takes us back to the concerns about connected projects that the latest Kennedy article in the Strib raised. The draft EAW (below) notes on page 11:

The project described herein covers all aspects of mining and processing industrial silica sand from clearing the overburden to transporting the raw material, processing it for specific buyers and loading rail cars for shipment via railroad. The development of other property near the processing facility and trans-load facility are limited to manufacturers or other sand users which may develop existing and proposed commercial/industrial zoned lands within the City of St.Charles.

Outside of the City of St. Charles, future stages associated to this development will be mining of the silica sand material for the processing facility. The silica sand formation (St.Peter Sandstone) that this proposal will extract from extends throughout southeastern Minnesota in great quantities. However, only those locations where it is easily accessible are currently economically feasible. The slurry injection station described in this project is located amongst the greatest sources of the high grade sand found near the surface in southeastern Minnesota. Its location to other potential sand sources was deliberate to allow for phased development of other sand mines.

There have been recent expressed interest in developing silica sand quarries from this same formation within a mile of this site and at least two quarry applications are pending and subject to EAW’s declarations. . . .

No wonder the citizens in the area and in Goodhue County are feeling overwhelmed and asking for relief from the state. And with Red Wing Mayor Egan taking a job as the executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, it’s no wonder why some of the peasants down in the driftless region are looking mighty unhappy.

Here’s the document: EAW – MN Prop Draft 10-29-12-1