In Unusual Move, MPCA & MDH Call for Extensive Environmental Review of 2 Proposed Winona County Frac Sand Mines

WINONA, Minn. — The two main Minnesota agencies responsible for protecting the state’s environmental and human health have taken the unusual step of calling for a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for two proposed frac sand mines in Winona County.

In official comments submitted to Winona County as part of the environmental review process for the two proposed frac sand mines, both the commissioners of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) this week called for the EIS. An EIS is an in-depth study that fully analyzes all aspects of a proposed project and includes the requirement that alternatives be explored that would prevent or mitigate major environmental harm, including not building the project. While an EIS is being conducted, permits to proceed with proposed projects may not be issued.

Winona County prepared the Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAWs) — an initial assessment of a project’s potential environmental impacts to determine if an EIS is needed — on the Yoder and Dabelstein mines, proposed in Saratoga Township by Minnesota Sands, LLC. Both MPCA and MDH commissioners stated in their official comments that these EAWs do not adequately address the mines’ potential impacts, and concluded that more in-depth analysis is needed.

The Land Stewardship Project (LSP) applauds the agencies’ call for this in-depth review. MPCA and MDH’s comments echo the concerns raised by large numbers of rural residents in recent months about the potential impact of the frac sand industry on the land, air, water, and people of Winona County and the surrounding area.

“I’m glad that the state agencies have made these strong statements,” said LSP member and Saratoga Township resident Vince Ready. “For the sake of the health of the people of this area, Winona County Commissioners should follow these sensible recommendations and order an EIS.”

The Winona County Board of Commissioners will make the final decision on whether to order an EIS on March 5. Under Minnesota environmental review rules, an EIS must be ordered if information gathered during the EAW process, including comments received, has shown that a project has the potential for significant environmental effects.

Both agencies’ comments identify the Yoder and Dabelstein mines, along with other mines proposed by Minnesota Sands in the immediate area, as phased actions, meaning their total acreage must be considered together and compared to the mandatory EIS threshold under Minnesota environmental review rules. Both agencies point out that the total proposed area to be mined by Minnesota Sands is well over the mandatory EIS threshold of 160 acres for non-metallic mineral mining.

The agencies call for the impacts of associated sand processing activities to be examined in the recommended EIS, with the Health Department noting that the sand processing facility proposed by the same owners (also doing business as Minnesota Proppant, LLC) is also a phased or connected action along with the mines.

In addition, the Pollution Control Agency’s comments describe the EAWs as inadequate in addressing the potential cumulative impacts of all sand mining, processing, and transportation activities proposed in the same limited area as well as the impacts of dust generated by the proposed mines, including the human health hazards associated with exposure to crystalline silica.

The Health Department’s comments also find deficiencies in the EAWs and state the need for an EIS to fully study the geological conditions of the area (it is dominated by karst formations) and the potential for groundwater contamination. As part of the recommended EIS, the Health Department calls for a thorough survey of drinking water wells in the area and the identification of potentially impacted wells, which must be monitored if the mines are permitted. The letter states that this monitoring should “continue beyond the reclamation and closure of the mines, as development of karst and the related additional risk to groundwater may occur years after the mine is closed.”

The Health Department also calls attention to the potential negative health and safety impacts of the estimated 1,200 truck trips per-day that would be generated by the proposed mines.

“The outside corporate interests trying to push frac sand mining into southeast Minnesota have wanted to avoid meaningful environmental review of their proposals,” said area farmer and LSP member Bob Christie. “But the state agencies charged with protecting Minnesotans from pollution and protecting our health are paying attention and have concluded that an Environmental Impact Statement is necessary under Minnesota law. We will work to see that Winona County does just that.”

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CONTACT: Johanna Rupprecht, 507-523-3366; Vince Ready, 507-932-4713