The Winona County Board received data on Tuesday from the state that suggest the county may have to require several proposed frac sand mines and a processing and transportation plant to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). An EIS, unlike the Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAWs) currently being prepared for the projects, is a in-depth environmental review that could take a year to complete, delaying the proposed frac sand projects significantly.
Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman wrote a memo to the board summarizing a communication from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), suggesting the county must look more seriously at the “cumulative impacts” of area sand operations, and the relationship of these operations to each other. His report also provided details about state laws and rules that determine when an EIS should be required.
“Letters coming in from MPCA and others provide evidence that these projects should be considered part of a much larger phenomen[on] affecting Winona County, and therefore should fall into the category of a mandatory EIS,” wrote Gilman. “Understanding that an EAW is merely a brief on the possibility of significant environmental impact and an EIS provides the true evidence to the public of environmental consequence, the two are not to be confused. An EIS requirement is not taken lightly as it is costly and time consuming, however, it may be the most effective means of identifying the extent of environmental impact and methods for mitigation.”
Currently, two mines have been officially proposed in Saratoga Township: the Dabelstein mine, 36.5 acres, and the Yoder Quarry, 46.1 acres plus 38.2 acres—a total of 120.8 acres for both proposals. Both, in initial draft EAWs, noted that the mines may be expanded in the future. Additionally, sand from the Saratoga mines could be moved by Minnesota Proppant, a planned processing and transportation facility near St. Charles.
The state requires a mandatory EIS when a project would excavate 160 acres or more to a depth of at least 10 feet.
But the state also allows the “regulatory government unit” (RGU) to require a “discretionary EIS” for projects that have the potential to cause significant environmental effects. In this case, Winona County is the RGU, ultimately the government body that must decide whether an EAW is a sufficient environmental review, or an EIS will be required. In their letter to the county, MPCA officials reminded county leaders that the state requires that many factors be considered when determining whether an EIS is necessary.
The MPCA letter said that the three mining operations could be considered to be “phased” or “connected” actions. Phased actions are those defined as two or more projects from the same proposer that the RGU determines will have an environmental impact on the same geographic area, and are substantially certain to be undertaken sequentially over a limited period of time. Connected actions are defined as projects that are a prerequisite for other projects and not justified by themselves.
Additionally, the MPCA letter outlines the way in which the county must evaluate the potential cumulative impact. “This requires an analysis of specific projects that may interact with the proposed project in such a way as to cause cumulative impacts. The RGU must inquire whether a proposed project, which may or may not individually have the potential to cause significant environmental effects, could have a significant effect when considered along with other projects that (1) are already in existence or planned for the future; (2) are located in the surrounding area; and (3) might reasonably be expected to affect the same natural resource(s),” reads the MPCA letter. The letter emphasizes that “anticipated future projects” should be considered, and that the analysis should encompass a limited geographic area surrounding the project “in which facilities may reasonably be expected to affect the same natural resources.” And, that “the nearby planned mining and sand processing activities would have the potential to contribute to cumulative potential effects; therefore, a focus on these related activities seems appropriate.”
Gilman also gave board members copies of a letter from the law firm Stoel Rives, representing Unimin, which operates “significant sand mining operations" of its own in North America, including at Ottawa and Kasota, Minnesota, and in Portage, Wisconsin. The letter from the firm claimed that the draft EAWs for the Yoder and Dabelstein proposals failed to sufficiently address multiple project impacts, and that the proposed mines should be subject to an EIS.
While the board did not discuss the update in detail during the meeting, commissioner Marcia Ward wondered whether the county could consider mining activities outside county limits when determining the potential for cumulative impacts and whether an EIS would be required. Gilman said he had spoken with MPCA officials who said that county leaders could, in fact, take regional mining activity into consideration when determining those cumulative impacts.
The Dabelstein and Yoder EAWs are expected to be released to the public for the second time soon. The original drafts had an error that required the documents be revised. Gilman expects the EAW drafts would be released again on December 24, and that the county would begin study in February to determine whether an EIS is necessary. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this issue.