The state will not require the Nisbit silica sand mine to be included in a pending environmental review for other nearby mines proposed by Minnesota Sands. And, if the Winona County Board follows a recommendation from its Planning Commission issued Thursday night, the Nisbit mine will not be required to undergo any further environmental review before the shovels hit the dirt.
In a 5-3 vote, the Planning Commission recommended that the county not require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed 19.2-acre mine in Saratoga Township. The smallest of several proposed mines that would harvest the kind of hard sand used in the hydraulic fracturing industry, the Nisbit site could extract about 200,000 tons of sand annually for three years and generate a maximum of 280 truck trips per day.
A public hearing generated a handful of commenters, many of whom objected to the mine plans and asked that an EIS be used to evaluate cumulative impacts of the Nisbit and other proposed new mines in the area. "We're not ready for industrial-scale mining," said Joe Morse, who added that the county needs to have a plan in place for how mine rules would be enforced and monitored for compliance.
Mark Zimmerman, of Homer Township, said the Nisbit proposal would be a good first mine because of its size. "Let's all use a lot of common sense in this," he said. "This mine is relatively small; I think it would be a good way for the county to get some experience… and use that to find out what really happens in a well-run mine." If the mine is not well-run, he said, shut it down.
Nisbit consultant Jeff Broberg presented a new dust mitigation plan to the commission, and said the mine proposers had addressed the concerns expressed by opponents of the plan. As for those who feared the mine would produce harmful silica sand that could be inhaled by neighbors, Broberg said their concerns would be better placed on a more serious dust generator: row crop farming. He said that estimates show 54 to 134 tons per acre per year of topsoil are eroded by wind in the area, adding that air monitoring for dust generated by the mine would be nearly impossible with those base levels of dust generated by agriculture. "We have a dust control measure in this mine that is detailed, specific and effective. We can't do anything about the rest of the dust," he explained.
Commissioners debated the recommendation, with Rick Speltz, Steve Jacob, Jim Hegland, Bruce Speltz and Don Evanson voting that the mine should proceed without an EIS, and commissioners Robert Redig, Jessica Heiden and Arland Otte voting for one.
"I think environmental impacts, cumulative or not, are not significant," said Evanson, who said the Nisbit mine application had been the first received by the county and proposers had waited for the moratorium to be complete and other delays for long enough.
Planning Commission and County Board member Steve Jacob asked whether the conditions of the mine permit could be adjusted if future studies showed additional regulations might be needed. Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman said the county could issue an interim permit or one that required an annual review, but had to be careful it didn't trigger a lawsuit because the operators were forced from an initial business plan due to changing regulations.
Hegland said he wanted to make it clear that allowing the Nisbit proposal to proceed without an EIS was not "opening the floodgates" for other mines. "There's only so much research we can do without doing something," he said, adding he and his family live about 1.5 miles from the Nisbit site. "I think this could be a real learning opportunity. I think we, as a county, need to start somewhere so that we can learn more."
"It's a good project to experiment with," agreed Redig, who said he supported the project but voted no out of respect for the majority of citizens who told the county they wanted more environmental study to be done. Additionally, Redig said he did have concerns about the dust generated by row crops, and wondered whether an environmental study ought to be done on the dust produced by tilling.
"This is a threat to agriculture in Winona County if we continue with this extreme concern with windblown dust," replied Evanson.
Otte said he could not vote for the Nisbit proposal when other mines that would do the same kinds of activities would be subject to an EIS. "Come on folks—it's the same thing; let's get real," he said.
Chair Bruce Speltz said he had lived near gravel and sand quarries his entire life, and said they were something that rural residents just have to put up with. "The fact remains: tonight every single one of us are going to get in our vehicles and drive home," he said, of the need for the oil and gas produced with the use of the sand.
Gilman told the commission that he had spoken with the head of the state Environmental Quality Board (EQB) on Thursday and was informed that the Nisbit mine would not be studied as part of the EIS that will be used to evaluate mines proposed by Minnesota Sands and thus, an EIS will not likely be imposed on the Nisbit development unless the county requires one.
The County Board will take a final vote on the issue on April 2.