The Winona City Council unanimously approved a proposal for a year-long air quality monitoring program that will measure frac sand dust and diesel fumes. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) offered to finance and adminster the program, which will place two monitors on top of the Winona YMCA roof, and is expected to begin next month.
After council member Michelle Alexander began the conversation by backing the proposal, it was approved without debate.
"I had a lot of people email me and contact me on this issue," said council member Allyn Thurley. "I think this is the prudent thing to do and I look forward to getting the information that the state approved."
"This recommendation comes from the Planning Commission and I'm very pleased that they made that recommendation to us," said Mayor Mark Peterson. "This is something that we talked about for a long time."
The council directed the Planning Commission to consider the issue of city-led air monitoring in March. Though the council's approval was quick and without controversy, the past discussions of the proposal were not. After months of back-and-forth between the Planning Commission and its subcommittee, the Citizens Environmental Quality Committee (CEQC), and discussions with MPCA officials this fall, the proposal passed on a 5-2 vote of the Planning Commission last month.
Planning Commission Chairman Craig Porter was outspoken in his opposition to the proposal, arguing that testing in Winona was unlikely to yield results that differ from existing monitoring sites elsewhere in Minnesota. Porter and other commissioners also questioned what the city could do if a health risk was identified and criticized the proposal for lacking a longterm plan.
"Tonight's City Council vote was a long time coming but it was the right vote," said CEQC member Bea Hoffman. The project will give us "a basis of understanding" of how silica dust and diesel fumes affect air quality, she said. "The fact that the vote was unanimous speaks to the level of public health concern Winonans have about the surge in silica sand mining," Hoffman added.
Diesel fumes were specifically excluded from the council's March call for a monitoring effort. Council members argued that it was unfair to attribute diesel fumes to the frac sand industry. When asked about those concerns now, council member George Borzyskowksi said, "There's no way you can totally lay it on the frac sand industry." MPCA air quality experts noted this fall that diesel trucks make up a minority of the diesel pollution in Winona.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem," said council member Paul Double when asked about diesel fumes. "I think the key thing is let's get the baseline." If the data collected during the monitoring effort does not show any violation of health standards, proponents of regulation "are going to find me very tough to deal with in terms of increased restrictions and laws," he stated. If the monitoring program reports that diesel fumes and frac sand dust levels are well below established limits for health, the city can confidently tell citizens raising health concerns, "'You don't have an argument here,'" Double continued.
Other air quality proposals not considered
A second offer from the MPCA to conduct monitoring at each frac sand facility in Winona and a recommendation from the CEQC calling for such facility monitoring were forwarded to the council, but not taken up for a vote. The MCPA indicated that frac sand facilities or the city would need to finance such "fence line" monitoring. Conversely, the MPCA offered to pay for nearly all the expenses for the YMCA monitoring site.
Recommendations from the CEQC also called for multiple diesel fume monitoring sites and initiatives like the MPCA's Clean Air Improvement Program, which seeks to reduce diesel emissions through "no idling" ordinances and other local measures.
"Is there any plan to return to some of these researched recommendations by the CEQC?" asked council member Pam Eyden. "There could be," replied Assistant City Planner Carlos Espinosa. When asked why she did not call for consideration of those recommendations at the meeting, Eyden said, "I wanted the main motion to proceed without any delay." She added of the CEQC recommendations, "I am very interested in those; I will be bringing them back."