Great Minds Think Alike on Mines: Comments Call for an EIS on Frac Sand

Public comments submitted as part of the environmental review process for two proposed frac sand mines in Winona County overwhelmingly call for officials there to follow the law and order an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Land Stewardship Project members, other local citizens, state agencies and scientific experts submitted a total of about 75 comments on each mine. The comments pointed out the many serious inadequacies in the Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAWs) prepared on the proposed Yoder and Dabelstein mines, and called for the much more in-depth EIS, which must be ordered if the EAW process shows a project to have the potential for significant environmental impacts.

An EIS fully analyzes all aspects of a proposed project and explores alternatives that would prevent or mitigate major environmental harm, including not building the project. Under state law, no permit for the project could be issued while an EIS is in progress, and the costs of the EIS must be covered by the project proposer.

Many comments, including those submitted by the commissioners of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), point out that the two mines are in fact part of a much larger project which triggers a mandatory EIS. Both agencies’ letters note that the Yoder and Dabelstein mines in Saratoga Township, together with the several other mines proposed by the same company (Minnesota Sands, LLC, also doing business as Minnesota Proppant, LLC) in the immediate area, would total well over the 160-acre threshold for a mandatory EIS on non-metallic mineral mining projects.

As both the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio News have reported, the commissioners also call for proposed frac sand processing activities to be examined in the same EIS as part of the same project. This would include Minnesota Proppant’s plant proposed near St. Charles, which, if built, would be the largest frac sand processing and rail transport facility in North America.

Along with pointing out the true magnitude of the proposed project, comments submitted described its potential for a wide variety of significant environmental effects.  University of Minnesota geology professor E. Calvin Alexander, Jr., considered the state’s leading expert on karst geology, submitted extensive comments on the mines’ potential to cause groundwater contamination (see Alexander cover letter here and Alexander comment here). He cites numerous problems in the EAWs’ discussion of geology and water quality issues and concludes that a full EIS should be required.

Dozens of Winona County LSP members, including Scott Lowery and Joe Morse, submitted comments detailing the proposed mines’ potential for serious, harmful impacts on the land and people.

LSP members and other local citizens called for an EIS on the project due to a wide range of significant potential effects, including groundwater pollution, groundwater depletion, air pollution from crystalline silica and diesel fumes, destruction of farmland and wildlife habitat, and safety risks and other impacts of heavy truck traffic. Citizens joined MPCA and MDH in calling for an EIS to fully study the cumulative potential effects of all proposed frac sand mining, processing and transportation activity in the area.

The final decision on whether to order an EIS will be made by the Winona County Board of Commissioners on March 5. The Winona Daily News reports that the County Board and Planning Commission will hold a joint public hearing on the decision on Thursday, Feb. 21, at Southeast Technical College in Winona.

Johanna Rupprecht is an LSP organizer based in our southeast Minnesota office. She can be reached at jrupprecht@landstewardshipproject.org or 612-722-6377.