EQB Tables Erickson Mine EIS Question

Minnesota Sands Announces Intentions to Target Fillmore & Winona Counties for More Mining

The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) made the right decision May 21 by tabling the issue of taking a Houston County mine out of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) ordered on the multi-site Minnesota Sands, LLC, frac sand mining project. Thus, the Erickson silica sand mine currently remains under the EIS order and, under state law, cannot be granted a permit by Houston County.

While mine site owner Tracie Erickson and Minnesota Sands owner Rick Frick claim that they have dissolved their business relationship and that the Erickson site should therefore be removed from the EIS requirement, the EQB determined that the mine proposers have not provided enough information to justify such as action. Commissioner John Linc Stine of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) made the motion to table the decision, which was seconded by Commissioner Mike Rothman of the Minnesota Department of Commerce and passed on a 7-5 vote.

MPCA Commissioner Stine was prepared and asked many questions of Mr. Erickson and Mr. Frick. Stine said the EQB should not be expected to exclude any individual mine from the EIS since Minnesota Sands has so far failed to provide full information on what the overall project does include. In spite of a March 25 written request from EQB staff to Minnesota Sands for more detailed information on the relationship between the company and the Erickson mine, the only documentation submitted by Minnesota Sands to date is a “Dissolution of Contract” between the parties, provided without a copy of the original contract or any other contextual material.

The same letter from EQB staff also asked for an “update on the status of projects by Minnesota Sands, LLC and/or Minnesota Proppant, LLC,” and the company provided no answer to that request. Minnesota Sands representatives have still never signed the cost agreement prepared and sent to them by the EQB in October 2013, or provided the payment legally required to begin the scoping process, the first stage of the EIS.

Commissioner Tom Landwehr of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) pointed out that the Silica Sand Mining Trout Stream Setback Permit requirement, created in 2013 legislation, does apply to the Erickson mine. This means that since the site is located less than one mile from a designated trout stream, no mining of silica sand may occur there unless a setback permit is granted by the DNR. And the permit can only be granted after an extensive process that includes hydrogeological evaluation with at least one year of pre-application monitoring. While Mr. Erickson now claims that he intends to mine only for “construction sand” and not frac sand, the material is still silica sand. In addition, operation plans for the Erickson mine submitted to the EQB by Houston County staff on May 7 are nearly identical to the 2012 plans for frac sand mining at the site.

Landwehr also noted that Houston County’s 2012 order for an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) to be done on the Erickson mine is still in place. Even if the EQB does remove the Erickson mine from the Minnesota Sands EIS requirement at some point in the future, the mine must still be required to undergo an EAW, which was ordered by the county in response to a citizen petition as provided for in Minnesota environmental review rules.

A number of Houston County citizens and their supporters traveled to the meeting in Saint Paul to present the facts of the Erickson mine case to the EQB during public testimony on the issue. These local residents have become true experts while facing the threat of frac sand mining in their communities for the past two or more years. The detailed citizen testimony was essential to providing EQB members with the history of the Erickson mine and Minnesota Sands’ activities in Houston County, as well as the context for the decision the Board is being asked to make.

Mr. Frick of Minnesota Sands claimed at the meeting that his company is no longer interested in mining frac sand in Houston County, and instead intends to pursue a project consisting of nine to 10 mines, all located in Fillmore and Winona counties. The company’s history of failing to disclose the full scope of its proposals suggests that such statements should not be taken at face value, especially when no new information about the project has yet been submitted in writing. However, if it is the case that Minnesota Sands intends to target only these two counties and still move forward with nine to 10 mines, this proposal would include three to four currently unknown mines, in addition to the already-proposed R. Dabelstein and Yoder sites in Saratoga Township, Winona County, and Boyum, A. Dabelstein, Kesler, and Wadewitz sites in Pilot Mound Township, Fillmore County.

Fillmore County’s ordinance, passed in November 2012, allows no more than five frac sand mines in the county at the same time. These five slots are currently taken by the four proposed Minnesota Sands mines and the already-permitted Rein mine. Thus, if the claims made yesterday are accurate, it appears that Minnesota Sands intends either to attempt to circumvent Fillmore County’s ordinance in order to mine at more than its four currently proposed locations, or to intensively target Winona County for frac sand strip-mining at half-a-dozen locations.

Look for further updates from LSP as this situation continues to develop. When or if Minnesota Sands does submit the necessary agreement and payment so that scoping of the EIS can begin, extensive citizen participation throughout the process will be extremely important. To learn more about local residents’ deep concerns about the impacts of this proposed project on their lives, homes and communities, read The People’s EIS Scoping Report, compiled from the comments of 100 people who gathered at an LSP meeting in Rushford, Minn., in July 2013.

Johanna Rupprecht is a Land Stewardship Project organizer based in LSP's Lewiston, Minn., office. She can be contacted at 507-523-3366 or jrupprecht@landstewardshipproject.org.