The ongoing debate over whether the frac sand industry poses a health risk may have a new focal point: the roof of the Winona YMCA. It is that surface that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the city of Winona have selected as the best site for a possible air quality monitoring effort.
Above the heads of panting joggers on treadmills and near the exhaust stacks of downshifting trucks hauling Wisconsin sand, among various other loads, two monitors on the roof would measure pollution capable of entering human lungs: bits of diesel exhaust and pieces of silica sand dust far smaller than the width of a human hair, both thought to cause lung disease if inhaled in large enough quantities. For the most part, preliminary results from monitoring efforts elsewhere in Minnesota and Wisconsin indicate that silica dust emissions there are well below accepted thresholds.
The Winona monitoring project would be an unusual arrangement for the MPCA, agency officials commented. In the other places where the agency is measuring silica dust — North Branch, Jordan, Mankato — monitoring was imposed as part of a regulatory action. People do not normally ask for it, as is the case in Winona. The Winona monitors would also be the first examination of silica dust along a truck route, MPCA officials said. "This is different for us," commented Air Monitoring Unit Supervisor Rick Strassman. "We normally are at fence lines or require people to monitor at fence lines," referring to monitoring silica dust at the edge of frac sand facilities. Compared to facilities in North Branch, Jordan, and Mankato, frac sand activity in Winona is smaller, but closer to homes, officials said, calling the two factors "countervailing concerns" for air quality in Winona.
That unusual arrangement may confuse people, one commissioner suggested. "I want to make sure that we're looking at things in the right context," said Planning Commission Chairman Craig Porter. "This is one of the few instances where [the MPCA is] measuring for the sake of measuring — 'Let's just find out what we find.'" Porter added, "I am concerned about the lack of context," suggesting that the public might interpret the presence of the monitoring program in and of itself to signify a serious health concern.
at sand sites, too?
The monitoring proposal is part of a two-part offer from the MPCA. First, the MPCA agreed to conduct and pay for monitoring at the YMCA site. A year-long study would seek to measure diesel fumes and silica dust emitted by trucks as they cross the Winona bridge and make their way to the Winona Port. The city would be required to pay any lease associated with the space, the cost of electricity, and to provide an operator to check the monitor a couple hours each week.
Second, the MPCA has offered to provide technical assistance and review should the city require monitoring of silica dust at frac sand facilities in the city. Typically in such situations, companies pay for consultants to operate monitoring programs, which are reviewed by the MPCA, agency representatives explained.
The offers were made in response to the city inquiries seeking advice on monitoring proposed by a city committee. That committee, the Citizens Environmental Quality Committee (CEQC), was directed by the City Council and the Planning Commission to consider "proactive" monitoring and this summer it recommended "immediate monitoring" of silica dust at frac sand facilities and diesel fumes along truck routes in the city to be paid by sand companies.
Air quality chiefs from the MPCA traveled to Winona for Monday's Planning Commission meeting to answer questions from the commission, and lingered to speak with the public and the press. In that meeting and another about the MPCA offer, the commission has shown interest in the MPCA-funded monitoring site and has not discussed monitoring for silica dust at frac sand facilities. In past meetings, the commission has expressed resistance to the concept of forcing sand companies to pay for monitoring.
The commission's serious discussion of the MPCA's offer to monitor at the YMCA "is an encouraging development," said CEQC member Bea Hoffman. CEQC member and Winona State University professor Holly Lenz said ideally she would like to see more monitors in other parts of the city, but "I'll be thrilled to get whatever we can."
The commission postponed making a recommendation until its next meeting on November 11. Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa encouraged the commission to consider the details of the MPCA offer along with the recommendations from the CEQC when making its final recommendation to the city council. In the meantime, Espinosa and Strassman said they would move forward with preliminary work on the YMCA site. Both parties have expressed hopes that monitoring at the YMCA site, if approved, could begin by January 1, 2014.
While the question of whether frac sand dust is a grave health concern or not has been reverberating in the island city in recent years, diesel fumes have received less attention. Both silica dust and diesel fumes are air pollutants of concern to the MPCA, officials said. A report by the environmental group Clean Air Task Force lists Winona County as one of the worst in the state for diesel fumes. MPCA Air Assessment Unit Manager Frank Kohlasch said that MPCA studies line up with findings from the Clean Air Task Force report.
However, another important detail the studies show that the vast majority of diesel emissions are coming from "non-road" sources, Kohlasch continued. Road sources refers to semi-trailer trucks. Non-road sources include train engines, barges, tractors, combines, and construction equipment. That means that truck traffic accounts for a small portion of diesel pollution. The Winona monitoring project would not be able to distinguish whether any measured diesel pollution is coming from barges, trains, or trucks.
Local and state governments are limited in their ability to regulate these forms of traffic, Kohlasch reported. Federal law prohibits state and local regulation of train traffic, he said. "There's not much room for the state or the city to regulate" trucks, either, he added. Retrofitting programs seeking to modernize fleets with cleaner burning diesel engines and anti-idling programs have been successful in curbing emissions elsewhere, but when it comes to train traffic the most that local and state authorities can do is ask nicely, Kolasch said. Careful planning of truck routes could help, such as "making sure that the trucks are not moving through residential areas and not having to make a lot of starts and stops," Kolasch suggested.
Whatever level of diesel fumes a monitoring effort might discover in Winona, most of it is likely not coming from trucks, according to the MPCA. Even if a troubling amount of diesel exhaust were to be found, local authorities may have limited tools to respond to such a problem.
Unusual though it may seem, the MPCA said the YMCA is a good spot for monitoring. Measuring air quality at ground level is ideal, but federal standards allow monitors to be sited up to 15 meters off the ground (roughly the height of a two-story roof), Strassman said. Air at that height is well-mixed with ground level air, making it comparable to what pedestrians are breathing, Kohlasch reported. The monitor will not be much higher than the height of truck exhaust stacks, the officials noted.
Placing monitors in urban environments is tricky, Strassman and Kohlasch agreed. The monitor must be far from any walls or other obstacles, well-secured, and must have access to electricity. So, rooftops are often used for monitoring in urban areas, they said. Additionally, the MPCA hopes to monitor diesel fumes where trucks are stopping, turning, and idling at stop signs, the officials added. Open space along Riverview Drive was considered, but it would require more investment than a rooftop monitor and trucks driving briskly by there would emit less than trucks stopped near the YMCA, Strassman and Kohlasch added.
Placing a monitor on land at the city-owned port was also considered, but decided against. "There's a lot of movement there, delivered by a lot of different trucks" carrying many types of commodities, said Espinosa when asked about placing a monitor at the city port. Locating a monitor intended for truck traffic at the port might confuse whether conditions along a truck route were being measured or conditions at the port as a frac sand handling site, Strassman said.