If Minnesota Proppant is successful with its development plans, what may be the largest frac sand facility in the nation would be erected on land adjacent to the city of St. Charles. It would process three million tons of frac sand annually, and the $70 million facility would serve as a rail transportation hub for the sand mined from at least three counties: Winona, Fillmore and Houston.
The development proposal has drawn sharp criticism from opponents who say the facility would pose health and environmental risks. Proponents claim the processing and transportation plant would bring jobs to the area and broaden the tax base, and that Proppant has changed the plans to address safety and environmental concerns.
Over the last several months there have been many meetings, from those hosted by concerned neighbors to updates from developers. Initial plans proposed by the previous operators have been changed since the business changed hands. Minnesota Proppant Public Relations Manager Jennifer Dessner offered details this week about where the project now stands, what changes have been made, and what neighbors and regional residents can expect from this development, which promises to put St. Charles at the center of frac sand production in the nation.
Dessner said Minnesota Proppant hopes to have permits secured and plans in place by January, with construction as early as spring 2013.
The initial owners of the development company called the project Farm2Rail, a truck-to-rail transfer facility and frac sand processing plant on 300 acres immediately south of the railroad tracks between County Road 37 and Cherokee Road. That initial plan called for 900 semi truckloads daily to the site, and the facility would have handled grain transportation as well as frac sand.
Minnesota Proppant, which took over the business in July 2012, has since looked at expanding acreage for the development. It has also added a slurry pipe that would keep much of the truck traffic away from the main facility and the city of St. Charles. Plans now call for a limit of 150 truckloads per day to the plant, with the rest of the sand brought to the facility via a slurry pipe. The slurry pipe would bring the majority of the sand from an area 6.5 miles south of the project, adjacent to several proposed new sand mines. A mixture of unprocessed sand and water would enter the pipe, and pumping stations installed every mile or so would help move the sand and water to the plant. The transportation hub and plant will deal exclusively with frac sand. Previous plans to use the facility to transport grain and other commodities have been abandoned.
Once the sand and water mixture reaches the plant, it is to be processed using dryers and screens. A substance called polyacrylamide (see more on the chemical below) would be used during water treatment, helping sediment and sand settle at the bottom of a “clarifier” or large containment system.
Processed sand would then be loaded into rail cars. Four trains per week composed of 105 rail cars could be loaded at the site, and each train would enter the facility from the east and leave to the east, avoiding movement of additional trains carrying sand through the city of St. Charles. The loading of the rail cars and processing of the sand would occur in a covered building, and the rail cars are expected to be covered.
Dessner said Minnesota Proppant has nine leases with property owners to mine in Winona, Fillmore, and Houston counties, and much of the sand here is “20/40” grade—considered the best for use in hydraulic fracturing to obtain oil.
The plans call for the use of 73 million gallons of water annually at the site to help move the sand through the slurry pipe. Much of that water, according to Dessner, would be continuously recycled throughout the process. Once the sand has been filtered from the water, the wastewater would be put into a closed containment clarifier along with polyacrylamide, a process similar to wastewater treatment systems used in the cities of Winona, Red Wing and Rochester.
Polyacrylamide is a flocculant that helps waste and sediment suspended in water settle to the bottom. It is used in a variety of industries, and types of the chemical are added to irrigation systems to help avoid erosion.
While polyacrylamide is not considered carcinogenic, acrylamide is, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), trace amounts of acrylamide are found in polyacrylamide.
According to the EPA, “Some people who drink water containing high levels of acrylamide over a long period of time could have problems with their nervous system or blood, and may have an increased risk of cancer.”
Because of that risk, the EPA has regulations for how much acrylamide can be in polyacrylamide—0.05 percent by weight—as well as the amount of the polyacrylamide that may be added to raw water--one part per million.
According to Minnesota Proppant, once the sediment has settled on the bottom of the clarifiers, the sediment is removed. That sediment is hardened into “cakes,” which include acrylamide at 0.06 parts per million. Those sediment cakes that include the acrylamide will be spread over mine sites, along with topsoil, during reclamation. Minnesota Proppant says acrylamide does not transport through soil, and that it degrades very quickly when applied to soil.
City, township, county: who will regulate?
The land proposed for the Minnesota Proppant facility is outside the St. Charles city limits, on St. Charles Township land that has been identified as a possible future city expansion area for industrial use. Project developers would like the land to be annexed into the city to provide for city utilities and services, but the St. Charles Township Board voted unanimously to deny an orderly annexation request in June.
The city of St. Charles could still pursue annexation of up to 120 acres per year through a simple ordinance vote without township approval, and Dessner said the project would still work if the land were to remain outside city limits.
The township board does not regulate zoning, so if the development were to be permitted without annexation, Winona County would regulate and permit the operation through a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). If the city annexed the property, Minnesota Proppant would have to request that the city rezone the property from agricultural use to industrial, and developers would have to secure a CUP from the city to proceed.
Right now, an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) is being prepared for the project. The draft of the environmental study is currently under review by the state and Winona County officials, and once it is complete, it will be submitted to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB). The EQB will then release the document to the public, and citizens and state agencies will have 30 days to make comments on the review. Winona County Commissioners will then decide whether the EAW is a sufficient environmental study, or whether a larger scale environmental review called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be required. An EIS could take a year to complete.
The sand industry is not a new one; area sand and crushed rock are used for many industries, including dairy farms, glass production, and roadway construction.
The demand for sand used in the hydraulic fracturing process for oil and natural gas extraction in places like Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, however, has never been seen before.
In order to get that sand to market, suppliers have to find a cheap and efficient route that doesn’t rely too heavily on semitrailer traffic, said Dessner. “Logistically, it’s a real challenge to even get the product to the oil fields. That’s where the rail comes in,” she said. Trucking alone is too expensive, and, said Dessner, truck traffic in communities is a controversial issue. “[Trucking alone] is not fiscally or environmentally sound.”
Dessner said right now, China and Russia are producing a synthetic product to be used in place of frac sand to help meet the demand. “Because we can’t seem to get our sand out of here, Russia and China are getting more embedded in the market,” she said. “[Hydraulic] fracking is not going to stop, no matter what we do.”
Weighing the outcomes: positive, negative
Many people have disputed the economic benefits of the development of frac sand mines and processing and transportation facilities, some fearing the industry could damage tourism and transform rural bedroom communities, such as St. Charles, into industrial hotspots where few people would want to live.
But Dessner said there has been much misinformation on the streets about what Minnesota Proppant would do for the St. Charles area. “The potential of this is huge. Why wouldn’t we want to create a job market here for the resources that we’ve been given?” she asked. “Plus the trickle-down effect of trucks coming through town every day, people making a decent wage right here—they don’t have to go to Rochester or Winona.”
But even Dessner, whose job it is to promote the project, admitted that there are negative impacts that would come with the development. “There always is a downside to progress,” she said. “There are people who are negatively affected by this. I’m very empathetic to that.”
Dessner said Minnesota Proppant has negotiated with neighbors within about 3/4 of a mile of the plant, either offering to buy out their property or offer a price guarantee if property values on adjacent land were to fall.
Still, plenty of neighbors are unhappy, and a quick drive around St. Charles shows many yard signs with messages against the frac sand development. A group of concerned citizens has organized, circulated petitions against the project, and many have become vocal opponents. They say the development will scar their neighborhoods and city, threaten the environment, and pose health risks for citizens.
In the coming weeks, the Winona Post will continue coverage of this complex development proposal, with articles detailing opposition efforts, regulatory issues and the EAW expected to be released soon to the public.
Sand: 3,000,000 tons processed and transported annually
Water: 73,000,000 gallons annually
Chemicals: polyacrylamide, possibly other flocculants
Truck traffic: 150 semitrailer loads per day (to the facility site; other semitrailers will unload sand at the end of slurry pipe 6.5 miles away)
Jobs: 50 estimated at processing/loading facility
Developer's cost: $70,000,000