The Rein frac sand mine on County Road 12 has a new name and a new operator since it was first permitted in 2013. Although not a single load of frac sand has yet been scooped, the newly named Highland Sand’s new operator Larry Thompson is seeking approval of additional hauling routes to as-yet-unknown destinations north and south of Fillmore County. Meanwhile, their original route to Winona’s processing site is still an option for them.
Any new route approvals are required to limit the number of loaded trucks leaving the mine, and update a road impact fee based on current construction costs to fix up resulting road degradation. At the time of this writing, the Fillmore County Planning Commission already recommended approval of two new routes despite numerous citizen objections, and the Fillmore County Commissioners may make a final decision on January 23 at their regular meeting at 9 a.m., or at a later date.
While discussions continue about what 120 fully loaded trucks and an equal number of returning empty trucks on a daily basis could do to County Road 12 and County Road 21, even more significant concerns are lurking.
Evidence is mounting that additional frac sand mines and even sand processing are being pursued by the frac sand industry.
Recall the big proposal to construct a centralized sand processing and loading facility in the St. Charles area, to be fed by 11 new mines in Winona, Fillmore and Houston Counties. This monstrosity was eventually halted by local opposition in the St. Charles area. In addition, the state required that a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be completed by the proposer, Minnesota Sands, LLC, before any single development could be considered. The final blow was the passage in Winona County of a total ban on new frac sand mining, processing, storage or transportation operations.
However, the frac sand corporations are not giving up easily. Pilot Mound and Saratoga landowner Roger Dabelstein, Southeast Minnesota Property Owners and Minnesota Sands challenged the Winona ban in district court. Although they recently lost that challenge, an appeal could follow.
Regarding the EIS for phased and connected actions, Minnesota Sands asked the state to terminate the requirement, allowing them to apply for a single frac sand mine permit at the Dabelstein site near Pilot Mound in Fillmore County, using only the limited Environmental Assessment Worksheet administered by local government. The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, with Fillmore County’s support, tabled a decision on termination until March 2018.
Other evidence of Minnesota Sand’s continued development plans are less clear, but still concerning. Why did Minnesota Sand’s CEO Rick Frick appear with Larry Thompson at the recent hearing to expand haul routes? Is he actively pursuing development of a sand processing site in Decorah, where one of the new haul routes would lead?
What about the statement Minnesota Sands’ CEO made about terminating the EIS requirement: “At this time (August 25, 2017), Minnesota Sands only has plans to submit a mining proposal, a conditional use permit application and reclamation plan to Fillmore County for a single 50-acre mine, which we intend to be the Dabelstein Property… We anticipate that after that period (five years) we may evaluate market conditions and the regulatory climate for processing in Fillmore County to evaluate whether to pursue the permitting of any additional mines. Further, we believe the potential to purchase and resell from already permitted third party mines will enable us to augment our business.” Exhibit A, P.42.
Frick knows very well that Fillmore County banned frac sand processing; does he think the regulatory climate will change in the future? Does his statement mean that Minnesota Sands, even while seeking to terminate the full EIS in order to open the Dabelstein site, does indeed have a masterplan of multiple mines and a processing site? Does his last statement mean that the Rein/Highland mine and maybe the existing Griffen mine on Highway 52 in Olmsted County are also part of his plan?
It is important to retain the requirement that phased and coordinated developments be analyzed as a whole for their full impacts, and not be taken up piecemeal.