A proposal to monitor airborne frac sand dust and diesel fumes will be on the Winona Planning Commission’s agenda on Monday. The proposal, from a city subcommittee, the Citizens’ Environmental Quality Committee (CEQC), calls for immediate baseline monitoring, in order to get a “before picture” of air quality in Winona prior to increased activity in trucking, loading, and washing sand from new and expanded Wisconsin mines. Meanwhile, the state of Minnesota has begun a monthslong to yearslong process of creating frac sand dust regulations, and will have other resources available this fall.
Do not wait for the state, the CEQC has advised. However, city staff and some Planning Commission members have advocated for waiting to see what happens in St. Paul. In recent weeks, city staff delayed bringing the CEQC proposal to the Planning Commission in order to obtain more information from state agencies and develop a separate staff recommendation: to postpone enacting the proposal until representatives from state agencies can meet with and advise the Planning Commission.
The City Council recommended the development of an air quality study proposal in early March. The Planning Commission referred the issue to the CEQC, which presented its proposal on May 7 for immediate monitoring. CEQC members and some citizens have decried the process as intentionally slow, accusing city officials of “foot-dragging” and “bouncing around the issue.”
“My reaction is that, with the foot-dragging, I am still incredibly disappointed,” said CEQC member and Assistant Professor of Health, Exercise, and Rehabilitative Services at Winona State University Holly Lenz, when asked about the delay. In meetings with city staff, Lenz and fellow committee members stressed the urgency of their recommendation to begin local monitoring and the importance of moving quickly to measure baseline air quality before activity increases. “They don’t seem to be hearing us,” she said.
At city hall
On June 24, the CEQC proposal was considered by the Planning Commission, which voted to send those recommendations back to the CEQC for reconsideration in light of new state legislation. On July 16, the CEQC reaffirmed and strengthened its recommendation. City staff then decided to bring the proposal back to the Planning Commission on August 26 rather than the August 12 meeting. In an interview, Espinosa explained that city staff did not add the proposal to the August 12 Planning Commission agenda “just because we needed time to digest what happened” at a non-public, August 2 meeting with state officials, and to have more time to develop their own staff recommendation.
At the August 2 meeting, according to Espinosa, state officials confirmed that the state will not develop standardized methods for monitoring silica dust for over a year. Because of that, the Planning Commission should delay the proposal in order meet with state officials, Espinosa advised in a briefing to commission members.
The lack of state methodology was discussed during CEQC meetings this spring. The committee determined that the city should hire air monitoring consultants approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and rely on their expertise to establish an appropriate methodology. When the state approves a standardized procedure, the city should use it, but the need to establish baseline data cannot wait, the CEQC recommended. During a meeting with Espinosa and the CEQC, City Planner Mark Moeller confirmed that he understood the CEQC’s intent: to put in place “an interim ordinance until MPCA [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] develops a process” for monitoring. Private air monitoring consultants have already given the city quotes, Espinosa told the committee.
Mayor Mark Peterson said, “I understand that the CEQC is frustrated here. Sometimes these things take a little while.” He added, “This isn’t something that we’re brushing aside or not taking seriously; I’m sure it will be coming to the council soon.” Peterson said, “If the city staff feels the need for more information, then they should be given the time to gather that. I’m not going to second guess them. They’re certainly allowed to gather more information.”
The Planning Commission will meet Monday, August 26, at 4:30 p.m. at city hall. Search “air monitoring” at www.winonapost.com for more reports on the topic.
In St. Paul
The state of Minnesota is preparing to make frac sand-related rules, including rules on air quality. That process is expected to begin this year and create statewide regulations on airborne frac sand dust. However, it may take two years or more, according to state agencies. By October, the state is also expected to create a reference library of frac sand policies gleaned from local communities around the state and assemble a board of state agency officials to help local governments make decisions regarding technical frac sand policies. That board, the Silica Sand Technical Assistance Team, is not just a frac sand hotline for local governments — any government that seeks advice from the state group will be bound to accept its recommendations or risk defending a contrary decision in court. The creation of frac sand rules, the reference library, and the state advisory board were all set into motion by an environmental bill signed into law in May.