by CHRIS ROGERS
At Tuesday's Winona County Board meeting, sand miners pushed back against the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) and its campaign to ban frac sand, LSP members urged the County Board on to a ban and rallied against a proposed voter referendum on the issue — which Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman later said was not an option in a legal opinion released Tuesday afternoon. Additionally, commissioner Marie Kovecsi pushed back against sand miners' comments about LSP.
For months, citizens have been calling on the County Board to ban new frac sand mines and processing sites in rural parts of the county. LSP has organized that campaign.
Several citizens spoke before the County Board urging the board to ban mining. The county does not have the staff time or resources to properly monitor and regulate the industry, Rollingstone resident Scott Lowery argued. "[Frac sand mining] does irreversible damage to people, plants, and animals," Saratoga Township resident Vince Ready said.
Homer Township resident Wendy Larson said that by allowing frac sand mining, Winona County was supporting the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" oil and natural gas industry and exacerbating climate change. To the extent natural gas produced by U.S. fracking replaces coal power generation, fracking has been seen by some as a net benefit in efforts to cut greenhouse gases — or at least the lesser of two evils. However, many environmentalists point to studies that suggest the leakage of methane from fracking wells — methane is a potent greenhouse gas — outweigh any greenhouse gas reductions. Even school children know climate change is affecting our community and the whole world, Larson said. "Continuing to export frac sand for fracking will likely come full circle to haunt the lives of our children and grandchildren," she added.
The operators of the county's only industrial silica sand mine responded at Tuesday's meeting. Tom Rowekamp and Ivey Popplewell run the 19-acre Nisbit mine in Saratoga Township; so far they have reportedly only sold sand as bedding for dairy cows, not for fracking.
LSP's proposed ban would prohibit sand mining for fracking but not for other uses, such as dairy bedding or glass. Rowekamp argued that the county could not legally ban an industry on the basis of who its end customers are. "There's a legal precedent here, and I don't want the county to suffer for it," he said.
A ban would only affect Rowekamp's operation if he expanded it; otherwise, the Nisbit mine would be "grandfathered in." In an interview after the meeting, Rowekamp said he or his heirs might be interested in expanding someday.
During the meeting, LSP organizer Johanna Rupprecht argued that the county had already established a precedent for regulating sand differently depending on whether it is ultimately sold for fracking because the county road repair fees, which were approved as part of the mine's permit, only apply to the mine if the sand is sold for fracking.
Popplewell criticized LSP itself. "In my opinion, Land Stewardship is no friend of the farmers in our area," Popplewell stated. "Land Stewardship is no friend of the county's either," he added, referring to LSP's support for a lawsuit against the county involving the permitting of the Nisbit mine. Popplewell continued, "We have millions of pounds of milk coming out of Winona County; we're number two in the state for counties as far as dairies. Land Stewardship wants us all to live on 40 acres."
At that point, County Board Chair Marie Kovecsi rapped her gavel and interrupted Popplewell. "As the chair, I would encourage you not to be overly argumentative or [to make] personal attacks."
"OK," Popplewell responded. He sat down without finishing his comments.
The County Board Chair is charged with maintaining order at meetings, and it is not uncommon for the board chair to enforce the board's two-minute time limit on public comments. However, it is rare for board chairs to control the substance of what citizens say at meetings. Perhaps the only recent example is from 2013, when former County Board Chair Wayne Valentine warned citizens against accusing commissioner Steve Jacob of a conflict interest during a public hearing on proposed zoning ordinance changes.
Some of the comments Popplewell made about LSP were hyperbolic or not completely true. The organization supports small-scale agriculture, but it has never said that farms should be limited to 40-acres in size. Many of its members live on bigger farms.
Popplewell said that LSP itself sued the county in the Nisbit case. LSP did not file a suit, but it did support a group of citizens who did, including LSP members such as Ready. In an interview after the meeting, Popplewell and Rowekamp said the distinction was immaterial. "They [LSP organizers] were the big push behind it," he stated.
In an interview after the meeting, Kovecsi said that she may have been overly cautious about enforcing the County Board's rules of decorum, which ban uncivil behavior at meetings, but that Popplewell's comments seemed to have crossed a line. "He did keep saying LSP did this, LSP stands for this," she said. "To me, it bordered on 'personal attacks' or [being] 'overly argumentative,'" Kovecsi explained in an interview after the meeting, quoting from County Board's rules of decorum.
"Marie is showing her loyalty to Land Stewardship," Popplewell said after the meeting.
Popplewell and Rowekamp also gave commissioners a study from the Heartland Institute that concludes, "Industrial silica sand mines have been active in the Upper Midwest for more than a century and can be operated in a safe and environmentally responsible manner."
Rupprecht said that the Heartland Institute is not credible, pointing out that it once denied the dangers of secondhand smoke. LSP has cited studies highlighting potential health and environmental risks of frac sand mining and frac sand companies' regulatory violations. Rowekamp called LSP's reports unfounded.
County echoes city's message on bridge, sort of
On Tuesday, the Winona County Board echoed the Winona City Council's message to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT): pay for rehabilitation of the historic Winona bridge and complete the project as promised. The County Board unanimously approved a resolution telling Mn/DOT to pay for projected cost overruns and finish the project. However, rural Winona County Commissioners expressed some reluctance and questioned whether rehabilitating the old bridge was a good use of the state transportation funds.
Mn/DOT Project Manager Terry Ward broke the news late last month that the rehabilitation of Winona's historic through truss bridge is projected to be $30 million over-budget, and that Mn/DOT leaders were reconsidering whether they would save the bridge after all or tear it down. Mayor Mark Peterson and the City Council balked at the news. Peterson said that Mn/DOT made too many promises to scrap the plans to save the bridge now and that he only supported the concrete box girder design of new bridge under construction — which some Winonans decried as ugly — in order to save and benefit the iconic through truss bridge.
The City Council voted unanimously to send a resolution to Mn/DOT leaders, state legislators, and federal lawmakers asking Mn/DOT to fund the rehabilitation of the existing bridge and complete the project as planned. This month, Peterson asked the County Board to approve an identical resolution asking Mn/DOT to fund the $30 million project cost overrun.
Minnesota's transportation dollars are spread thin, and those $30 million dollars could go toward funding much-needed rural roads projects, said rural commissioners Marcia Ward and Steve Jacob. They pointed out that the County Board was not asked to weigh in on the original plan for the bridge project in 2013, when the city embraced Mn/DOT's plan for the soon-to-be-completed concrete box girder bridge and the rehabilitation of historic through truss bridge. Both Jacob and Ward said that if they had been asked to weigh in on the bridge in 2013, they may have advocated for something different than the plan Mn/DOT and the city agreed to. Jacob said he would have likely argued the rehabilitation project was too costly, even then. However, Jacob and Marcia Ward said they did want to be a good partner with the city, and a promise is a promise.
"If I make a deal with somebody, I expect that deal to be upheld," Jacob said.
"Should we hold a person to their word? Well, yeah," Marcia Ward stated.
Mn/DOT leaders hope to determine whether they will save the historic bridge sometime this year.