Last fall, the Land Stewardship Project's organizing efforts won a major victory when the Winona County Board in southeastern Minnesota banned any new frac sand operations in the county’s jurisdiction. In recent years, outside interests have been seeking to strip-mine and haul away silica sand from beneath southeastern Minnesota hills, bluffs and farmland to use in oil and gas production. The people of Winona County spoke up overwhelmingly for banning this destructive industry. An average of 80 percent of public hearing testimony and written comments favored the ban.
But now, pro-frac sand interests are joining up with huge corporate law firms in a last-ditch effort to undo the people’s will. Two lawsuits seeking to overturn the ban were filed this spring. A key, unanswered question: who is funding these attacks on Winona County’s democratic decision? What we do know is that the oil, gas, and frac sand industry has deep pockets and a frequent pattern of trying to hide corporate-driven efforts behind shell companies or “local” front people. Below is some of what we know and don’t know about the players behind this attempt to take away the people’s victory.
Larkin Hoffman Daly & Lindgren Ltd. is the law firm engaged in the first suit against Winona County and the ban. It is a Minneapolis-based law firm frequently representing and acting as attorneys and advocates for the frac sand industry in Minnesota. In particular, Larkin Hoffman closely associates with the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council (MISC), the industry’s lobbying group. Larkin Hoffman attorney and lobbyist Peder Larson has regularly attended state hearings and meetings on frac sand to speak for the industry and against regulations that would help protect people and the land.
Larson, a former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner, has often been seen at these events with chief MISC lobbyist Dennis Egan, who in 2013 was forced to resign as Red Wing's mayor when the public became aware that he had taken the frac sand lobbying job while still in office. Larson and Egan both traveled to Winona County repeatedly in 2016 to speak against the proposed ban at public meetings, with Larson even sending a letter urging the County Board to reject the ban on the very day it was ultimately passed. Larkin Hoffman’s Gary Van Cleve, lead attorney on the suit against Winona County, also recently represented frac sand corporation AllEnergy in its unsuccessful attempt to stop Trempealeau County, Wis., from denying a frac sand mining permit.
Larkin Hoffman is among the largest law firms in Minnesota and an active lobbying firm at the state Capitol, representing many corporate interests. Larkin Hoffman lobbyists have led the charge to weaken local control, threatening people’s right to have a say at the local government level about what happens in their communities. In fact, during the 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature, Larkin Hoffman and others unsuccessfully tried to weaken the power of local governments to enact moratoriums on development.
Faegre Baker Daniels
Faegre Baker Daniels is the firm engaged in the second lawsuit against Winona County and the ban. It is the largest law firm in Minnesota and operates nationally and internationally, representing a variety of corporate clients, including factory farms and other agribusinesses, big banks and insurance companies, fossil fuels, and mining. The firm’s website refers to mining of “silica sand and other industrial minerals,” yet a major part of this lawsuit’s argument revolves around attacking the distinction Winona County made between “industrial minerals” (including frac sand) and “construction minerals.”
The attorneys on this suit include two Faegre Baker Daniels partners, Christopher Dolan and Delmar Ehrich. Their profiles on the firm’s website list their experience defending major corporate interests such as Cargill, Inc., and a Koch Industries petroleum refinery, among many others. It’s clear their involvement in the attack on Winona County’s ban is part of a long history of representing and advocating for corporations over people, the air and the water.
“Southeast Minnesota Property Owners” (SMPO) is an entity listed as a plaintiff in the Larkin Hoffman suit. Efforts are underway to portray SMPO as a grassroots group of local landowners, but no proof of that status has been provided. Because only one individual has identified himself as a member, we don’t know whether this so-called group is truly local or even a “group” at all. We do know that the “registered address” given for SMPO on the lawsuit itself is the address of Larkin Hoffman’s Minneapolis office. SMPO has no history of holding public meetings or activities, engaging in the democratic process, or taking any action whatsoever before this lawsuit. It appears to have come into existence solely for this legal attack on Winona County. In March, the Winona Post identified Tom Campbell (owner of a proposed frac sand mine site) as “president” of SMPO, but reported that neither he nor attorney Van Cleve would name any other members.
Listed as a separate plaintiff in the Larkin Hoffman suit is Roger Dabelstein, also the owner of a proposed frac sand mine site. He is the only person named as an individual plaintiff in either suit.
Minnesota Sands, LLC is represented by Faegre Baker Daniels as plaintiff in the second suit. This LLC has intermittently tried to secure permits for frac sand operations in southeastern Minnesota for several years, but so far none of its proposals have been permitted. The plans, and the names of people associated with this company, have changed frequently. The identities of current owners, backers or funders of Minnesota Sands—with the exception of its founder Richard Frick—are unknown, as are the source(s) of funding for this lawsuit. It appears that Minnesota Sands is a company on paper only, with no current operations. The only contact information Minnesota Sands’ website provides is that of Zipko Strategy, a public relations firm also representing corporate clients such as Polymet Mining.
The lawsuit claims Minnesota Sands currently holds six leases to mine frac sand from 1,946 acres of land in Winona County, among 3,732 total acres under lease in southern Minnesota. No exact locations of these currently leased sites have been revealed. The suit also claims Minnesota Sands wants to open a frac sand transloading facility in Winona County, possibly in St. Charles Township where a similar proposal was defeated in 2013.
The people of Winona County won’t be bullied by outside corporate interests. The County Board was right to pass the ban and we are confident it will be upheld. LSP is filing to intervene in the case to help represent our members whose homes, farms, air and water are protected by the ban. We will show once again that organized rural people can prevail against big moneyed interests trying to exploit our communities.
LSP organizer Johanna Rupprecht can be reached at 507-523-3366 or via e-mail.