EQB: Don't Allow this End-Run Around Environmental Review Rules

The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) faces a decision May 21 that could have far-reaching repercussions for the health of the land and people in southeastern Minnesota, as well as the integrity of the environmental review process.

At issue are proposed changes to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Minnesota Sands was ordered to undergo on a frac sand operation involving 11 mines that would be located in Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties. Under Minnesota state law, an EIS is intended to be a comprehensive study of the environmental impacts of a proposed project, along with its economic, employment and sociological impacts. It is much more in-depth than the brief Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAW) that were begun on parts of this proposed mining project. This EIS is being carried out by the EQB, a Minnesota state agency, and as the Land Stewardship Project's recent People's EIS Scoping Report shows, citizens in that part of the state are very concerned about the environmental, health and economic impacts of frac sand mining. It was exactly this kind of situation that the EIS process was created for.

In their efforts to gain a foothold in southeastern Minnesota, frac sand mining companies have made it clear they will take advantage of opportunities to step around basic environmental rules. For instance, in 2012, Minnesota Sands tried to avoid the EIS requirement by claiming that individual landowners were the actual proposers of the company's mines proposed in Winona County. The latest example of this behavior came to light recently when the operators of the Erickson Mine in Houston County began claiming that this facility is producing “construction sand,” not frac sand. The Erickson Mine is one of the 11 Minnesota Sands facilities ordered to undergo the EIS. The owner of Minnesota Sands now claims that he has severed ties with the Erickson Mine owner and wants that mine removed from the EIS.

The EQB has the authority and obligation to deny this attempted end-run around the environmental review process.

According to the documents in the EQB Board packet, the owners of the mine, Tracie and Michelle Erickson, have provided no information to the EQB about severing their relationship with Minnesota Sands. All information has come from Houston County staff or Minnesota Sands' Richard Frick. More troubling is that the Ericksons' proposed “new” project for “construction sand” is practically identical to the original one to produce frac sand. It is very possible that this “construction sand” could be sold to some new enterprise operated or controlled by Richard Frick and then sold as frac sand.

In a March 25, 2014, EQB letter to Mr. Frick of Minnesota Sands, EQB staff wrote: “Please describe in detail any association between the Tracie and Michelle Erickson site or Tracie and Michelle Erickson and Minnesota Sands, LLC and/ or Minnesota Proppant LLC. This would include any past, current, or anticipated future associations and include, but not be limited to, a partnership, ownership, shareholder, buyer, seller, processor, transporter, or relationship of any kind.”

In a letter received by the EQB from Mr. Frick on April 5, there was a “Dissolution of Contract” with no explanation or any other accompanying documents necessary to fully understand it, such as the original lease and/or agreement.

Minnesota state rules spell out a process for considering a variance from the environmental review process. The variance process allows for public input and requires more detailed information from the proposer. This is the process that should be followed if the Erickson Mine wants to go forward before the EIS is completed. The provisions for the variance are found in MN Rule 4410.3100 Subp. 4. Minnesota Sands has not followed this process.

If an EQB order to remove the Erickson Mine from the EIS should move forward despite these facts, the order should state that a Silica Sand Trout Stream Setback Permit is required, that a previously started EAW on the mine must be completed and that the Department of Natural Resources will be responsible for the EAW. If the decision is made that the Erickson Mine is no longer part of the EIS, the issue should not just be handed back to Houston County. The sand available at this site is silica sand—calling it “construction sand” does not change this.

The EQB is meeting Wednesday, May 21, and this issue is on its agenda. The importance of how it rules on this cannot be over-emphasized. If the EQB simply allows the Erickson Mine out of the EIS then it creates a blueprint for the other 10 mines in the EIS to do the same.

LSP state policy organizer Bobby King can be reached at 612-722-6377 or bking@landstewardshipproject.org.