More than six months of intensive study of the silica sand industry came to an end Monday when the Winona City Planning Commission approved the final draft of recommendations and voted to forward their findings on to the City Council.
The Council gave the commissioners the task of studying the controversial industry during the city's one-year moratorium on the frac industry. The study culminated in a 38-page document that addresses habitat, wetlands, quality of life, air quality, water permitting, environmental review, traffic impact, and road wear.
Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt praised the commission's work during the public hearing, saying, "Throughout this last year, we have heard a lot of conversation, a lot of good conversation regarding health concerns. We've talked about the mining of, transportation of, washing and processing of, selling of, and distribution of sand. We've examined it. We have done our due diligence, [and] you have done your due diligence."
Council chambers were packed with those who support and oppose the industry. Winona resident Reggie McLeod said long-term studies of air quality need to be done in order to establish baseline data and better predict effects on the community. "We are really feeling our way around in the dark here and you need to be examining these studies now before negative things start happening here," he said.
Jane Cowgill, of Winona, expressed concern with the recent downgrade of acceptable sand moisture levels from 4 percent to 1.5 percent, saying the reduction in percentage was "putting the industry before the health of the citizens." However, Commission Chair Craig Porter said the change was approved and recommended by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and, therefore, will be the accepted standard.
Area industry owners Rich Mikrut and Steve Kohner spoke in favor of the sand business, and Tom Rowekamp, contractor for Dave Nisbit's proposed mine in Saratoga Township, said all laws will be followed.
"The mining industry is now starting to form a coalition to govern ourselves and to make sure we adhere to best business practices," Rowekamp said. "We make sure that we have noise and dust control plans. We are sympathetic to the public's thoughts on trucks and we are making sure that we don't put more trucks on the road than is necessary to do business. That's going to be the standard from now on."
Commissioner James Gromek indicated he felt confident sending the recommendations forward and said the document will "better regulate" the industry in the future.
The final recommendations could go before the Winona City Council as early as Monday. If the council approves the recommendations, they will be incorporated into city code. However, if the council denies the recommendations, the frac sand industry in Winona will rely on the regulations provided in existing conditional use permits.
The commission unanimously approved the plat request for the sale of 4.65 acres of Westfield Golf Club land, which will be used to create the Kolter subdivision and a rail spur to serve the industrial property at 25 McConnon Drive. Other plans for the property include official delineation of park land and the creation of a street right-of-way.
"We are looking to keep as much foliage and trees in the park area as possible and will make sure to limit the proposed project to just one spur," Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa said. "If this project were to expand, it would have to come back before the board as a variance."
City planning officials are in the early examination stage of the plan, which would require at least a 200-foot setback from residential properties if a rail spur were to be built. Espinosa said long-term plans for the land have not been decided, and noted the request is being examined in the context of current zoning regulations.