The city of Winona is not much closer to deciding whether it will conduct air quality monitoring for silica dust and diesel fumes associated with the frac sand industry than it was three months ago. On Monday the Winona Planning Commission referred recommendations for immediate monitoring made by the Citizens Environmental Quality Committee (CEQC) back to that committee for review in light of recent legislation that calls for the establishment of a team of state agency experts and model ordinances to assist local governments with the frac sand issue.
Calling for “proactive” monitoring of dust before the state took action, the City Council asked the Planning Commission in early March to consider air quality monitoring of silica dust. The Planning Commission referred the topic to the CEQC in April, which finalized its recommendations for immediate monitoring of silica dust and diesel fumes in early May. Those recommendations were first heard by the Planning Commission on Monday, along with a staff report on legislation passed shortly after the CEQC’s recommendations. City staff recommended that the commission recommend referring the CEQC monitoring proposal to the yet-to-be formed Silica Sand Technical Assistance Team (SSTAT). Upon request, that team of state agency staff will provide legally binding recommendations to local governments regarding silica sand mining, transportation, and processing. Local governments that ask for advice from the SSTAT must follow the advice or provide legal findings of fact to explain why they did not. That team is expected to be formed by October 1.
The CEQC recommended that the city require air quality monitoring in the interim “if immediate action was not available from the state.”
“These were made before the legislation,” said commissioner Dan English of the recommendations. “Maybe they [the CEQC] would change their recommendation.” Commissioner Wendy Davis agreed, “Maybe they would want to change their recommendation.”
CEQC member Bea Hoffman attended the Planning Commission meeting. During an interview with the Winona Post following the meeting, she said, “I’m not sure how we’ll handle it. I’m concerned that October is too long and it may be many more months” before a state recommendation is made. The delay is frustrating, she said, adding that the city’s response “is beginning to feel like foot dragging.”
State law on silica sand
Minnesota is closer to some state action on silica sand following an environmental bill passed by the state legislature last month that includes several provisions regarding frac sand. The new law requires the following:
• By October 1, the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) must set up a group of state agency staff known as the Silica Sand Technical Assistance Team (SSTAT) to function as arbitrators on issues of silica sand and local government.
• The EQB must also prepare model standards and criteria on silica sand mining, transportation, and processing by October 1. The model standards and criteria will be similar to model ordinances that cities and counties could adopt. Air quality, dust prevention, and groundwater are among the topics specified by state legislatures.
• State agencies must develop rules and standards for frac sand issues. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is required to develop rules to control emissions from frac sand projects. The Department of Natural Resources must make rules on sand mine reclamation. The Department of Health must develop a limit for the acceptable amount of airborne silica dust.
The rule-making requirements are not tied to any timeline. EQB Principal Planner Jeff Smyser, who works closely with the MPCA and other agencies, said rulemaking often takes a year or more. “Rulemaking by its very nature and by statute is not implemented quickly,” he said. A spokeswoman for the MPCA could not speak to how long the frac sand rulemaking might take, but said that the group has begun work to set up initial public input sessions in August.
Smyser said that the EQB will have a heavy workload meeting the requirements of the new law. The organization has just begun to work out its game plan. It will have the SSTAT together by October 1, along with some model criteria and standards, he said. However, those initial standards may just be a compilation of the measures local governments across the state have already implemented. There will be new regulatory solutions synthesized, as well, Smyser said, though he said that finding new solutions to difficult problems takes resources “and one of those resources is time.”