On Tuesday, the Winona County Board approved the county's first frac sand mine permit with a split vote, allowing Dave and Sherry Nisbit's mine plans to be realized on 19.2 acres in Saratoga Township. Mine representatives said they hoped to have all the paperwork needed to begin mining activities ready by July.
Commissioner Steve Jacob made the motion to approve the mine permit, adding several new conditions to the list of regulations attached to the permit. First, the mine operators will have to pay the full, 22.5 cents per ton, per mile, to haul the sand on county roads. The Nisbits had requested to pay a smaller fee. Second, the mine operators will have to comply with any new mine regulations that may be adopted by the board in the future. The operators will have to reimburse the county for any public funds spent to enforce the permit regulations, as well as provide a traffic impact analysis for the city of Winona on the effects of their sand hauling on a 1,100-mile segment of Old Goodview Road on the haul route.
Commissioner Marcia Ward seconded the motion, and Board Chair Wayne Valentine cast the third vote to approve the new mine. Commissioner Jim Pomeroy, who attempted to make a motion to delay consideration of the permit until a related Court of Appeals decision is rendered in the case, and Commissioner Greg Olson voted against the motion to approve the permit. Pomeroy's motion to delay a decision was seconded by Olson, but failed with a 2-3 vote.
The Nisbit mine is expected to extract sand for the hydraulic fracturing process used to harvest oil and natural gas in other parts of the country, as well as for dairy bedding for local farmers. The operation is expected to operate for three years, after which the area will be seeded as pasture land. The mine will generate up to 280 semitrailer truck trips per day, and is expected to remove about 203,000 cubic yards of material in its first phase and 492,000 cubic yards of sand in its second phase. The trucks will travel along County Road 113 to County Road 33, then on Highway 14 and into the city of Winona. From Highway 14, the trucks will turn onto Old Goodview Road to a processing facility owned by Bob Hemker.
The Nisbit mine permit was first requested in September 2011. County leaders first tabled, then denied, the request, while a moratorium on the industry was underway to allow county staff members to further study the mining industry and revamp existing mine regulations. When the moratorium expired in May 2012, the Nisbit mine application was resubmitted. By August 2012, the Winona County Planning Commission recommended that the County Board approve the permit request, but it was again delayed after a citizen petition requested that an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) be completed for the project. After the EAW was complete, the County Board voted to accept the EAW as a sufficient review of the project, and did not require a more extensive environmental study called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). A citizen group recently appealed the board's decision not to require an EIS, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the appeal within the coming year.
Members of the Land Stewardship Project hosted a press conference prior to the meeting, urging county leaders to slow down the process and consider the potential environmental, health and safety consequences of sand mines. Citizens also spoke directly to the board during a brief public comment period.
"I ask you who you represent," said Joe Morse, Land Stewardship Project member. "You represent the citizens. [There has been] no big clamoring from people in this county saying 'yes, we want frac sand mines.' You need to slow down and think about what's in the best interest of the county and the citizens of the county."
Pauline Connaughty, a neighbor of the mine site, asked that the county wait for more research on the effects of sand mines. "I've been against it since day one," she said. "A lot of us feel we're not being represented by you people on the board, so if this passes, we're going to remember this when election time comes around."
The packed audience at the county board meeting at times scoffed at commissioner comments, at other times, shouted objections.
Pomeroy said he felt the appeal on the county decision not to require an EIS should be resolved before the county approved the permit, although only commissioner Olson supported the idea.
Ward suggested that the county needs to abide by the rules contained within the county's zoning ordinance, adding that the ordinance requirements and regulations were supposed to outline the way such land use requests would be handled. Additionally, Ward mentioned that the Fillmore County Board had recently approved the Rein mine for expansion from about 18 acres to 50 acres, and that it did so without a room full of people voicing opposition.
Olson quipped that some commissioners did not acknowledge the presence of nearby sand mines when it determined the Nisbit mine did not need to complete an EIS, adding that those mines should have been considered as contributing to "cumulative effects" of mines including the Nisbit mine. "The mines are there," he said. "They didn't suddenly disappear."
"Why should Fillmore County decisions affect Winona County," shouted Morse from the audience, drawing a round of applause. "This is Winona County."
Ward countered that Winona County does not have jurisdiction over neighboring counties, and that it could not require an EIS that would study other county land. She said that state agencies that could review the entire industry were not willing to provide the staff or funding that would be needed for such a study.
When asked for her opinion, Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said that case law, statutes, and state agency rules do discuss the fact that a government decision-making body should look at cumulative effects when determining the need for an EIS. "And I think it's a debate, certainly it was in the Legislature, about how far can one county go," she explained. "In looking at the way the courts interpreted [EIS provisions], nobody is limited by jurisdiction in terms of cumulative impact."
With a motion to approve the new mine permit on the table, Pomeroy asked a question he's asked before: how many mines can Winona County handle? "We're going to, all of a sudden, hit this 'uh-oh' moment, and it's going to be too late," he said. Are five mines, 50, 100 too many, asked Pomeroy, who said he was not certain what the answer should be.
Jacob said that the limit to sand mining was something that should be addressed in the future, adding that some people think the number should be zero. He said that residents who would like to see mining prohibited should seek to amend the zoning ordinance and comprehensive land use plan. "I don't think zero is the right number, and I don't know what it is," explained Jacob.
"The beauty of the zoning ordinance is that an amendment can be brought forward," agreed Ward, who said Fillmore County had placed a limit on sand mining activities, prohibiting more than five from being active at the same time.
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