Two state agencies have recommended that Winona County leaders require that a proposed 20-acre mine be included in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a detailed review that is expected to be prepared for two other proposed mines in Saratoga Township.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) have both written letters to Winona County, suggesting the Nisbit mine be part of an EIS that will be prepared for two mines proposed by Minnesota Sands, LLC. Minnesota Sands, proposer of the Dabelstein and Yoder sand mines in Saratoga Township, faced similar pressure from the MDH and MPCA before announcing last week it would voluntarily conduct an EIS for the two projects. A "scoping" process is expected in the coming weeks, which will determine exactly what the EIS will examine, as well as whether additional proposed sand developments will also be included in the EIS.
The Nisbit mine is the smallest proposed frac sand mine in the region, at just under 20 acres. The plans would include the extraction of sand from the site over a three-year period. Unlike the mines proposed by Minnesota Sands, the Nisbit proposal is not affiliated with other new frac sand businesses in the area, according to geologist and Nisbit consultant Jeff Broberg. Broberg also said that if the county requires an EIS for the project—along with the cost of such a study—the relatively small mine proposal would be killed.
"We're not going to contribute to an EIS," said Broberg. "This project is dead if that happens."
Broberg explained that the Nisbit mine proposal was the first to be introduced to county leaders back in 2011. The argument made by state agencies and other sand mine opponents—that the mine would contribute to "cumulative impacts" of other new mines—does not make sense when applied to the first, smallest, new mine, he said. "[The Nisbit proposal] was application number one. Before Minnesota Sands even had an idea of doing anything, the Nisbits came with an application in 2011. [Proposer Tom Rowekamp] conceived of this really as a source for dairy sand, and then the frac sand kind of popped up as an opportunity," explained Broberg. "So we're not at all hooked up to Minnesota Sands, [or the] Minnesota Proppant [processing facility planned near St. Charles]. If anything, we're competitors."
Both the MDH and MPCA argue the Nisbit mine should be included in the Minnesota Sands EIS in order to fully assess the potential impact of multiple sand businesses in the area. The MDH would like the mines' impact on ground water quality, air quality and truck traffic further reviewed, along with a Health Impact Assessment to examine potential health effects. The MPCA also asked that potential effects to water, air quality and cumulative impacts be reviewed with the EIS. The MPCA said in its letter to county leaders that while occupational risks associated with exposure to silica dust have been studied, other data is needed to assess the potential risk of exposure for others who might live or work near a sand operation. "While environmental exposures to crystalline silica may not be a significant concern to the general public, exposures of potential concern may be more likely if populations are close to large sources of uncontrolled emissions," the letter states.
Broberg said Winona County's ordinance regulating frac sand businesses has been looked at as a model for other counties in the area, and that the rules and the Nisbit mine plan will mitigate potential negative affects such as dust. He said neither an EIS, nor the broader Generic Environmental Impact Statement called for in a Senate bill, would likely provide any more answers to what people see as lingering questions about the impact of the industry.
"Twenty acres is just a tiny speck of a mine," added Broberg, who said the small scale of the Nisbit proposal made it a good case study for county leaders to evaluate how the new ordinance regulations will work out. "It's frustrating that activism is just about exaggeration and misdirection about this, in my opinion."
The Winona County Planning Commission is expected to make a recommendation to the Winona County Board about whether the Nisbit proposal should be subject to an EIS review in the coming weeks. The County Board will then take a final vote on the question.