Nightmare Before Christmas: Winona County Gets Frac Sand Review Wrong (Again)

This fall, LSP uncovered serious errors in the process of environmental review that was being done on proposed frac sand mines in Minnesota's Winona County. Eventually, the county acknowledged that the problems we pointed out needed to be corrected, and started the environmental review process over in November. Unfortunately, the county’s second attempt at environmental review still doesn’t get it right—and worse yet, the new review documents are being made available to citizens on Christmas Eve.

The frac sand mine proposers want to go through a piecemeal environmental review process, with multiple parts of the same project being treated as separate, to avoid a comprehensive look at the full impacts of complete proposals.

But the fact is the Yoder and Dabelstein frac sand mines, proposed in Saratoga Township, will be run by the same company (Minnesota Sand), begun at the same time, and located less than one mile apart. This makes the two mines, according to Minnesota environmental review rules, “phased actions.”And under the rules, phased actions must be reviewed together as part of a single environmental review. This is the only way to accurately assess the overall environmental impact of a project on a community.

Beyond these two mines, this environmental review should also have included the frac sand processing plant and transport facility proposed in the neighborhood by Minnesota Proppant (a company with many if not all of the same owners as Minnesota Sand). Any other mines proposed by these same companies in the same area should be included in this review as well.

But Winona County did not even take the basic first step of following the rules by looking at the Yoder and Dabelstein mines together as part of the same project; instead, it’s still publishing separate Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAWs) on each of them (see the pdf links below).

Publishing these EAWs on Christmas Eve starts the 30-day public comment period, which ends on Jan. 23. So citizens who want to thoroughly read and comment on these EAWs are forced to choose between taking time away from their holiday plans, or losing the first part of this already very short window. Winona County was not locked into this publication timeline, and could have waited until January to publish the EAWs, which would have been much more fair to the public.

State Sen. John Marty, chair-elect of the Senate Environment and Energy Policy Committee, had this to say about Winona County’s recent action on these EAWs:

“This is an example of the environmental review process failing to protect the public interest. These two proposed frac sand mines would be within a mile of each other and will be operated by the same company; it is clearly one project. The impact on our air and water, the impact on health and the environment—from dust, from noise, from truck traffic—that results from these two mines and a potential processing plant, will be cumulative. According to state rules on environmental review, they are to be analyzed through a single Environmental Assessment Worksheet to fully understand the combined impacts. Yet, there are two separate EAW documents, well over a hundred pages of complex information, being published for public comment on Christmas Eve. This process and timeline—in the midst of the holiday season—is unfair to the local residents who want to carefully review them and comment. It's time for the Legislature to ensure that Minnesota's environmental review process serves the public interest.”

Here are the new Yoder and Dabelstein EAWs as prepared for publication, which LSP received from Winona County on Dec. 17:

Dabelstein Environmental Assessment Worksheet

Figures Attached to Dabelstein EAW

Yoder Environmental Assessment Worksheet

Figures Attached to Yoder EAW

The EAWs should be available on the county’s website by Dec. 24.

Watch for ongoing updates from LSP on this situation. Working together, we will make sure that we get the complete and thorough environmental review that the law requires and the citizens of Winona County deserve.

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