A proposal to monitor frac sand dust and diesel fumes failed to pass on a tie vote of the Winona Planning Commission last Tuesday. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) last month offered to place two air monitors on top of the Winona YMCA at the foot of the Interstate Bridge to measure silica dust and diesel exhaust emitted near the bridge. "I just don't see why testing here is going to show anything different than what they're already seeing in many other parts of the state," Planning Commission chair Craig Porter commented. "It's easy to say, 'It's only $60,000 and they're going to pay it. Go ahead and do the testing.' But it's tax dollars and I just don't see why it's justified."
Microscopic particles of silica sand dust and diesel fumes that are small enough to enter the lungs have been linked to lung diseases. Concerns of some that the handling and transporting of frac sand might be affecting local air quality spurred the monitoring proposal, which originally came from the Citizens Environmental Quality Committee (CEQC).
The planning commission, two members of which were absent from last week's meeting, pledged to consider the item again at its next meeting on November 25.
How did this get started?
During the city's one-year moratorium on frac sand operations in 2012, the Planning Commission engaged in a more than six-month-long study on frac sand-related health risks. Dust emissions figured prominently in those discussions, and the commission decided to adopt a provision requiring that any exposed sand stockpiles be kept slightly damp. The council approved that rule; however, a concerned citizens group decried the rule as meaningless after the Winona Post reported that city staff does not regularly conduct moisture testing.
In March, as the City Council finalized its new regulations and state action on the "sand issue" remained uncertain, the council called for a city-led air monitoring project to proactively address any potential health risks, rather than wait for state action. The Planning Commission was asked to consider the issue, and forwarded the question to its subcommittee, the CEQC. In May, the CEQC recommended immediate air monitoring at all frac sand facilities as well as along truck routes. Shortly afterward, the state passed a broad frac sand bill, calling for rulemaking processes, over months or years, to begin creating state frac sand dust regulations. The Planning Commission then asked the CEQC to reconsider its proposal in light of the state's action. In July, the CEQC replied, returning its original recommendations unchanged and urging the planning commission to begin monitoring as soon as possible. At the recommendation of city staff, the issue was put on hold until MPCA representatives could meet with the Planning Commission. They did so late last month, when the agency made the offer of monitoring at the YMCA.
Porter: CEQC recommendations off base
"I'm a little disappointed with these recommendations from the CEQC," Porter commented at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting. He noted that during the moratorium, the planning commission held months of meetings on the issue of sand dust. "We had experts from industry, experts from the transportation industry side, from the testing industry side, experts from both states came and talked with us at length. We made our recommendations based on a great deal of input and discussion; the CEQC essentially met once," he said.
Porter continued, "When we saw what was developing at the state and sent it back to them [CEQC] it was both to say, 'Hey take a look at what the state is saying: that this is pretty preliminary and maybe you need to take another look at it.' It was also my way of saying that perhaps this isn't thorough work." He added that if the CEQC worked for him in a private sector setting, "I would say that I am not really satisfied with the work that they've done. I'm not inclined to go along with any of their recommendations, honestly."
There was little discussion or directive when the commission rejected and returned the CEQC initial recommendations in June. It simply told the CEQC to reconsider the recommendations in light of the new state action.
Winonan Mike Kennedy spoke with Porter after the meeting saying, "I wish you would discuss those things with your own advisory committee [CEQC]. They're very tired of being ignored by you." Porter replied, "We're an advisory board to the city council and they do the opposite of what we suggest all the time, that's just the way it is."
In a subsequent interview, when asked why the planning commission forwarded the recommendation to the CEQC in the first place if they felt that the commission had a better grasp of the issue, Porter explained he wanted "to get a different perspective on it." However, Porter explained that, ultimately, he does not agree with that perspective. "Based on the input that I've seen, from MPCA being here at our last meeting, from the industry experts I've heard, and what I've learned studying on my own, it's my opinion that air quality monitoring here is not going to tell us anything we don't know based on other parts of the state," he said.
Porter may have taken flack for his criticism the CEQC, but he spoke up for the right of citizens to criticize the planning commission at a recent meeting. At a September meeting when another commissioner said that negative comments about the commission's work on the air quality monitoring issue were unfortunate, Porter responded, "I have no problem with being questioned," and indicated that critical comments are part of the political process.
Porter questioned the need for monitoring diesel fumes, pointing out that, according to the MPCA, trucks probably contribute less than 30 percent of local diesel emissions, with the majority coming from diesel-fired equipment, barge and rail traffic, and farm vehicles. He pointed out that truck fumes in Winona are unlikely to be worse than in the Twin Cities, where the amount of truck traffic is much greater. The MPCA currently monitors diesel exhaust pollution in the metro area.
Porter and commissioner Wendy Davis also questioned what could be done with the information produced by monitoring, given the city's and even the state's limited regulatory power over interstate commerce. "If we put this on top of the Y, then what do we do with it?" Davis asked, referring to the data generated by monitoring and any conclusions that might be reached.
"My understanding from the MPCA is there is no plan for what would be done after the testing," Porter said. MPCA representatives were present at the planning commission's last meeting and noted that the state does not have the power to regulate vehicle engines and fuels, but that "no idling" ordinances are commonly used by municipalities to curb emissions and that MPCA has had success in asking operators to change practices in order to minimize diesel fumes. Another proposal before the Planning Commission recommends they pursue a community-led, MPCA program called the Community Air Improvement Project that seeks options for local authorities to reduce emissions including educational campaigns on cleaner burning engines, bans on vehicles that emit visible smoke, and policies promoting cleaner-burning municipal equipment.
When the City Council directed the Planning Commission in March to examine the possibility of monitoring of frac sand dust emissions, council members specifically excluded diesel fumes, noting that it would be unfair to focus on the diesel exhaust from a single industry.
Davis, Porter, and commissioners Dan English and Brad Ballard also questioned the need for monitoring silica dust, given the high level of uncertainty that significant amounts of respirable dust are being emitted in the city. At the commission's last meeting, MPCA representatives stated that processed frac sand being transported was unlikely to produce any respirable dust because all the smallest particles have already been removed. Porter characterized those statements as indications that it was unlikely that any respirable dust exists in Winona. "It's been processed and cleaned coming into town. The likelihood of it causing any discharge is low, because it's all been removed," Porter said of respirable dust.
However, not all frac sand entering Winona has been processed. A local washing facility receives unprocessed sand. As of last year, much of that sand was delivered over the Winona Bridge and would have passed near the proposed monitoring site. According to Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa, all frac sand delivered to the Winona Port has already been processed.
Commissioner Brian Buelow defended the monitoring proposal saying that the frac sand industry in Winona does present a unique situation in regard to air quality. He disputed claims by fellow commissioners that all the frac sand entering Winona was washed and free from respirable dust. "I don't think it is," he said. The MPCA proposal was a good opportunity for the community to learn more about local air quality, he argued. "Let's find out what we have here," Buelow said. "If it's fine, that's okay, then we know," he added. Commissioner Dale Boettcher agreed, "I believe it will hopefully satisfy to some extent our citizenry." Davis ultimately sided with Boettcher and Buelow in a 3-3 vote, explaining later, "I see everybody's point." She continued, "We've looked at this and looked at this and nobody seems to like what we find. Still, it doesn't hurt [to monitor]. Once we know then we'll know and we can lay this to rest." Ultimately, the commission's goal is "to make people feel safe in their community," she added.