St. Charles residents who oppose a proposal that would put the country’s largest frac sand processing and rail transfer facility on the edge of the city have begun circulating a petition, and in just two weekends have gathered more than 900 signatures.
The petition asks that the city adopt an ordinance that prohibits “mining, loading, unloading, storage, transferring, washing and processing of industrial silica sand” within city limits. The petition follows the guidelines outlined in the city’s charter section “Powers Reserved by the People,” which states that if a petition with at least 15 percent of the voter turnout at the last electoral election (1,835 voted in the last election) contains a request for a specific city action, the measure must be acted on by the city council, or added to the ballot as a referendum question.
The petition relates directly to Minnesota Proppant, a planned frac sand facility on land adjacent to St. Charles, that would process and dry 600 tons of sand per hour, then transport it via rail from the site. Project developers would like the township land to be annexed to the city of St. Charles, though the proposal has drawn concerns from residents who fear that added semitrailer traffic, along with potential health and environment effects, would change the character of the rural community.
The petition was submitted to the St. Charles City Council on December 4. By December 7, a letter from City Administrator Nick Koverman to the Concerned Citizens of St. Charles (CCSC) stated that although the city’s charter said such a petition would trigger a referendum, this issue could not be decided by voters. Koverman offered this explanation during the December 11 council meeting: “Our attorney informs us that state law is clear that the Planning Act has preempted City Charter provisions allowing for initiative and referendum with respect to ordinances like this one. So the initiative process outlined in our charter cannot be used to adopt a land use/zoning ordinance, and there can be no election on the petition that was filed last week,” said Koverman.
State law that dictates when an issue can be decided by referendum is complex, but laws that define how local zoning ordinances may be changed are fairly direct — putting the authority to change zoning laws directly into the hands of elected council members. However, that does not mean that the city’s charter cannot force the city council itself to consider an ordinance change. The issue is expected to appear on the council agenda at the first meeting in January.
A few dozen members of the CCSC gathered Monday night to share the petition and its content, and said it is time for the St. Charles City Council to begin looking seriously at the group's apprehensions about Minnesota Proppant's plans. According to CCSC representative Fred Troendle, volunteers seeking petition signers visited only about 60 percent of city residences, and about 80 percent of residents asked asked for signatures did provide them. The 906 signatures collected thus far represent about 49 percent of city voters in the last election. CCSC members planned to visit the additional 40 percent of city residences in the coming days, hoping to gather signatures from an even larger percentage.
“Sixty-nine percent of people drive out of town to work, and choose to drive back here to live,” said Troendle of St. Charles, considered a “bedroom community” in which most adults work in Rochester or Winona. He said the issue is simple: the Minnesota Department of Health says industrial silica sand particulate matter is linked to silicosis and cancer, and, he added, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says there is no way to evaluate the dust produced during frac sand mining and processing. It means, said Troendle, that there are too many questions left unanswered to allow Minnesota Proppant to move into town. “Don’t let [St. Charles residents] be the guinea pigs,” he said. “We have a very nice city, and at the end of the day, St. Charles doesn’t want this.”