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Frac study draft gets final look Monday (10/21/2012)
By Emily Buss

A comprehensive study of the frac sand industry may have seemed daunting to the Winona City Planning Commission back in April, but is now an item crossed off the to-do list of responsibilities. The findings of their study over the past nearly seven months have been compiled into a 37-page draft that will be reviewed during Monday’s Planning Commission meeting.

The commission's findings during the city's year-long moratorium on the frac industry support “commodity processing and transportation activities, such as frac sand” coexisting with other businesses in Winona. It also concluded that “such activities should have sufficient regulations to protect the environment.”

Commissioners will take a final look at the recommendations and vote on their final approval before a public hearing is held next month.

The final draft lists recommendations under each of the areas of interest the commission studied – habitat, wetlands and quality of life; air quality and permitting; environmental review; and traffic impact and road wear.

“These were the most common topics that have come up during discussions about frac sand mining,” Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa said in explaining why the commission studied those topics.

Habitat, Wetlands

and Quality of Life

The commission began the frac sand industry study by researching area habitats and wetlands that may be affected by the sand industry. During a May meeting, Commissioner Pamela Eyden asked for a more inclusive study to be done on neighboring ecosystems.

During the site analyses by the commission of each sand processing and washing site within city limits, no issues were found that needed to be addressed. Espinosa said since those sites are zoned for industrial use, the event of a habitat or wetland being nearby was highly unlikely, and no changes to city code were recommended.

Air quality

and permitting

During June, the commission focused on air quality as it relates to frac sand operations. Area citizens were invited to attend a presentation by representatives from state agencies, which was held in the Winona Middle School Auditorium.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency representative Jeff Hedman said at that meeting that operations that have the potential to emit hazardous material from their sites currently must comply with annual certifications, submit emission inventory checks, and report any deficiencies that may arise.

Hedman said there are more than 20 different enforcement tools the MPCA uses to combat noncompliance, from monetary fines and stipulation agreements to jail time.

Commissioners then further addressed air quality issues, and recommended frac sand operations conduct weekly tests of sand moisture levels. Espinosa explained that the recommendation was an attempt to limit the amount of crystalline silica emitted into the air.

While researching moisture level tests, the commission learned of new technology in the form of the Aqua-Spear. The device is equipped with a stainless steel probe that is inserted into the sand and instantly displays a moisture reading on an LCD screen. It is a simple alternative that works effectively, Espinosa said.

A final air quality recommendation would requires frac operations to continue to abide by MPCA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration air quality guidelines. Their findings also showed that because frac sand is processed wet, the potential for fugitive dust getting into the lungs is very low.

Environmental review

As August approached, the commission discussed requiring new operations to submit an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) in order to obtain a conditional use permit (CUP). The commission recommended giving power to the city to initiate a review based on an EAW checklist that is already on file.

If questions are raised by one or more of the checklist criteria, the proposal will be brought to the Planning Commission and the City Council. If the council determines the projects will have a significant environmental impact, an EAW could be ordered.

Traffic impact

and road wear

The commission spent a significant amount of time researching ordinances in an attempt to craft the a traffic ordinance that would protect roadways but not discourage business in Winona. At the request of local industry owner Rich Mikrut, the commission carefully worded its recommendation to address road wear issues and traffic concerns.

The commission recommends that all future developments—not limited to frac sand—submit a traffic impact analysis (TIA). The analysis would identify all roads to be used from the project site to the nearest designated truck routes. The analysis would only look at city roads not designated as truck routes. The commission concluded that truck routes are designed to handle heavy traffic and, therefore, should not be included in the analysis.

Future operations would be held to a maximum of 200 truck trips per day. If the TIA shows the potential for the operation to surpass the 200-truck limit, a road use agreement would be required.

The findings of the TIA could require that the applicant fund improvements to affected roads. However, the commission’s final recommendation was that the city engineer be permitted to waive the requirement for a TIA and/or road use agreement.

On Monday, there will be a chance for commissioners and the public to weigh in on the final draft of the frac sand study. Espinosa said the commission has tackled each issue and incorporated input from the community into its proposals.

“I think they’ve done a great job,” Espinosa said. “They’ve had to take in and process a lot of information. I think they came up with some great recommendations. There have been a lot of late nights.”

If the Planning Commission approves the draft recommendations, there will be a public hearing on the draft, tentatively set for November 26. The recommendations would then be sent to the City Council for final approval. Espinosa said if some or all of the recommendations are approved, they will be written into city code. However, if the council decides to veto the recommendations, the frac sand industry in Winona will rely on the regulations provided in the language of current CUPs.

“I think what we’re trying to do is strike a balance between a growing industry and addressing the issues,” Espinosa said. “I think the biggest thing is that we already have a CUP on the books. What we’ve tried to do is come up with recommendations that will add to [what] we already have in place. I think [the council] will see that these are necessary changes that help address the potential expansion of the industry.”

The Planning Commission will meet Monday, October 22, at 4:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall. 


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