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Commission rejects air proposal (04/30/2014)
By Chris Rogers
A proposal to require air monitors to measure respirable frac sand dust at the fence lines of all frac sand facilities in the city of Winona was rejected by the city's Planning Commission Monday.

"I just believe that the monitoring that we're doing right now is adequate, and nothing we've gotten yet has convinced me it's time to push this burden on the industry," said Planning Commission member Ken Fritz, referring to air monitors recently installed on the roof of the Winona YMCA.

Based on other sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin where monitoring is being done, there is no reason to suspect that frac sand facilities are creating dangerous amounts of dust and no reason to impose more regulations on the industry, said Planning Commission Chair Craig Porter. Data from one site in Minnesota where results are complete indicate that dust emissions did not exceed the Minnesota Department of Health's (MDH) benchmark. Monitoring at Wisconsin frac sand facilities indicates that emissions of larger dust particles are well below federal limits; however, those sites did not measured the size of particle the MDH benchmark is based on.

"Give it time" and wait for the state to make regulations if and when regulations are needed, advised Planning Commission member Dale Boettcher. "At this particular point in time it has not been proven to be necessary to put burdens on these companies that will either force them out of business" or cause them to stop handling sand, he said. The state recently began the rulemaking process for frac sand facilities, which may including air pollution regulations. Contentious rulemaking can take as long as two years, state officials have said.

"The frac sand opponents keep talking about silicosis as a scare tactic to cause the public to be afraid of the frac sand industry and there is really nothing to be afraid of," commented Planning Commission member LaVerne Olson.

If the dust is not a problem, then monitoring would "give the industry the ammunition to say, 'This is fine,'" said John Nosek, who is a member of the Planning Commission subcommittee that made the proposal and a Winona State University assistant professor of biology. "I don't understand the opposition to data," Nosek commented in a conversation with Porter after the vote to reject the proposal.

"Personally, I think the elephant in the room comes down to what is the price tag for peace of mind in a community?" said Planning Commission member Ed Hahn. "Facts and figures are bandied about by both sides of the debate. I'm really glad we put in a monitor [at the YMCA] because up to that point we didn't have any local data whatsoever; it was all conjecture. Now, I don't know. Part of me just wants to say at this point, put it to the City Council, let them hash it out and come to a decision."

"I don't think it's unreasonable to ask a company to do that monitoring," commented Planning Commission Wendy Davis. While that comment seemed to support the proposal, Davis ultimately voted against it, saying, "I don't think it's fair to say that the industry is not interested in pubic health."

Last winter, after a split vote from the Planning Commission, the City Council unanimously approved installing air monitors largely paid for by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) on the roof of the YMCA. MPCA representatives said the YMCA monitors will provide information on the amount of respirable frac sand dust and fine particulates — a catchall sometimes used as a proxy for diesel fumes — that is in the ambient air throughout the city.

The new proposal, which was advanced by the Planning Commission's subcommittee the Citizens Environmental Quality Committee (CEQC), would have required monitoring right at the fence line of every frac sand facility in the city. The proposal was based on non-binding recommendations issued by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) last month that encouraged local governments to require air monitoring at all frac sand sites and that all processing of sand be done indoors. State air quality experts have said that processed sand is unlikely to emit the size of dust particles that enter and damage human lungs, but that activities like the blasting, crushing, processing, and hauling of unprocessed sand may, and that dust emissions may be concentrated near the sites where those activities take place. While the city port handles processed sand, other sites in the area blast, process, and haul unprocessed sand.

Porter, Boettcher, Davis, Fritz, Olson, and fellow commission member Brad Ballard voted to reject the proposal and not pass it on to the City Council. Hahn cast the lone dissenting vote. Planning Commission members Mandi Olson and Brian Buelow abstained from voting. Buelow stated before the vote that he wanted to see what the results of the YMCA monitors were before voting on whether to require fence line monitors. In an interview, Mandi Olson, who was appointed to the commission this year, said that she was not familiar enough with the frac sand issue to vote.

The air in the room during the Planning Commission's conversation was full of tension. In the middle of explaining his rationale, Boettcher stopped to tell citizen audience member Jane Cowgill to stop shaking her head. After the meeting, Cowgill and other citizens were passionate in expressing their disappointment to Porter, who stayed to talk with them.

"Why can't this contentious issue get to the council? We elected them, not you… You're holding up democracy," Cowgill told Porter.

"In case you can't tell, we're very upset," said Winonan Kay Shaw, who reported dust concerns at her home near a sand processing facility.

There is an anti-dust ordinance in city code and if there are problems with dust, the first thing citizens should do is call the city, Porter advised Shaw, referring to existing requirements that sand stockpiles be kept moist.

Dahl rezone recommended

Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the rezone request that would allow the Dahl Chevrolet dealership to relocate on Highway 61 on the condition that paperwork to develop the property as planned begins within a year.

The downtown Dahl Chevrolet dealership is slated for seizure by the state as part of the new bridge project. Cornerstone Church has agreed to sell the dealership its property, which is between the existing Dahl Toyota store across from Highway 61 and Vila Street and a residential neighborhood. That property is currently zone R-1 (single family residential) and would need to be rezoned B-3 (general business district) to allow a car dealership to be built.

During a public hearing, neighbors expressed some concerns, including light pollution and noise from dealership loudspeakers after business hours. Neighbor Theresa Brendel said that during heavy rains the neighborhood is already poorly drained, and she was concerned that the addition of an impervious parking lot and any fill needed for the new dealership might cause her basement to flood.

Winona Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt urged the Planning Commission to approve to the rezone "so that we save and maintain jobs and the tax base." Chamber of Commerce Board member Dennis Meyer said, "this is one of the first opportunities that we have to assist" and keep those businesses affected by the bridge project. "It would be a big loss for us to not support what they're doing in our community," commented Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Rick Craft.

City Planner Mark Moeller noted that B-3 is the city's least restrictive zone and "would permit virtually any form of commercial use on the property." He suggested that the Planning Commission approve the rezone on the condition that the property is developed as planned and that the commission automatically conduct a site plan review before development begins, which would allow the city a limited scope of authority over development plans.

The City Council approval is required to finalize the zone change.  


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