Winona County & Frac Sand: Letting the Fox Guard (& Build) the Hen House

UPDATE (11/12/12): Since this blog was originally published, Winona County was informed by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board that the error of stating that the MPCA did the Environmental Assessment Worksheet means that the process must be restarted. The new timeline has not yet been established. This is a good first step and Winona County should use this opportunity to address the other concerns described below.

The Dabelstein and Yoder mines are the latest two frac sand mines proposed in Winona County's Saratoga Township, just southeast of the city of St. Charles, Minn. They are both just under 40 acres to start, with future expansion likely. Together they will generate 1,200 truck trips per day, six-days-a-week. One loaded frac sand truck weighs 40 tons. These trucks will haul the sand along County Road 6, County Road 29, I-90 and Highway 43 to be processed in the city of Winona.

Both frac sand mines are undergoing environmental review by Winona County. It appears that Winona County had the frac sand mine proposers prepare the Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAWs), and then rubber-stamped them, in violation of state guidelines on environmental review. When the EAWs submitted by the mine proposers were compared to the EAWs put out by the county, there were no significant differences. The final EAWs put out by the county contain the same misinformation and missing information as the drafts submitted by the mine proposers.

Here are the mistakes and omissions that are identical in the draft EAWs submitted by the project proposers and in the final EAWs put out by Winona County:

The EAWs falsely state that they were prepared by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The first page of both EAWs states: “This EAW was prepared by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).” The EAW even incorrectly directs people to submit comments to the MPCA, not the county.

The draft EAWs do not meaningfully analyze the impact of the likely expansion of the mines or combined impacts of the proposed mines, other proposed mines in the area, and the frac sand processing facility proposed for St. Charles. A key concept of environmental review is to analyze the cumulative impact of a project's likely expansion and its impact in combination with other similar projects proposed nearby. The EAWs fail to do this. The EAWs indicate that the mines will very likely expand, and then fail to assess the potential environmental impacts of that expansion. The EAWs admit that these mines may eventually feed into the proposed St. Charles processing plant and slurry pipe system, but fail to assess the associated cumulative impacts. (Click here for the draft EAW of the Yoder frac sand mine prepared by the proposer and here for the draft EAW of the Dabelstein mine prepared by the proposer.)

The final key question on both the EAWs is simply left blank. The last question is: “31. Summary of issues. List any impacts and issues identified above that may require further investigation before the project is begun. Discuss any alternatives or mitigative measures that have been or may be considered for these impacts and issues, including those that have been or may be ordered as permit conditions.” This very important question has not been answered.

Despite these obvious mistakes and omissions, the Winona County Planning Director signed both EAWs certifying that, “The information contained in this document is accurate and complete to the best of my knowledge.”

State rules make it clear that the county is responsible for the environmental analysis and accuracy of the EAWs. The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB), the state agency that sets the rules for environmental review, says in its guidelines about the preparation of an EAW: “The [county] must be in charge of any conclusion-type responses that discuss the significance of impacts or the adequacy of mitigation. If the [county] fails to exercise independent review of the proposer’s information, it could lose a legal challenge and have to repeat the EAW process. If the [county] does not have the necessary expertise on staff, it should consider hiring a consultant to help review information and to assist in the preparation of the EAW.”

This is common sense. Analysis done by the mine proposer will be biased and will tend to downplay any potential for environmental harm. Geoffrey Griffin, who submitted these two draft EAWs, is the proposers’ engineer for these two mines. Griffin’s family owns a mine in Olmsted County near Chatfield. He is involved in other mining proposals around the area, including working as the project engineer for the proposed St. Charles processing plant. He has a large financial stake in making sure potential environmental concerns are dismissed and frac sand projects move forward quickly.

To make matters worse, Griffin was charged with professional incompetency in the practice of land surveying and formally reprimanded in Iowa in the 1990s. He was also fined by the Minnesota Department of Commerce in 2010 for violating state laws related to real estate licenses.

So in Winona County, the fox is not only guarding the hen house, he is designing it. It’s not fair to the citizens of Winona County to have the process start with "final" EAWs that are so incomplete and inaccurate. That puts the burden of coming up with the proper science and analysis on citizens.

The county should start the process over and do these EAWs right by:

Fully assessing the cumulative impacts.

Exercising independent judgment about the proposers' information, as required in state guidelines.

Making sure the EAWs accurately state who prepared them and who should receive comments.

Answering all the questions.

Because county staff may not have the expertise, this may mean hiring an independent environmental consultant to help.

Johanna Rupprecht is an organizer in the Land Stewardship Project's southeast Minnesota office.