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County bungled frac sand environmental studies (11/14/2012)
By Sarah Squires

Two environmental studies for proposed sand mines in Saratoga Township must be re-released soon, after Winona County found it had several deficiencies in initial drafts that posed a liability for the county.

The Environmental Assessment Worksheets (EAWs) for mines proposed by Roger Dabelsten and William and Ida Yoder were released in October. The county is the “regulatory government unit” (RGU) for the process, which means that the Winona County Board will ultimately be responsible for determining whether the EAW reviews are sufficient to address potential environmental hazards, or whether more comprehensive environmental analyses will be required.

The process for EAW reviews is relatively complex. First, data on the proposed projects is submitted to the county (acting as RGU). Then, the county must analyze the data and submit the draft document to the state Environmental Quality Board (EQB). Once the EQB checks the draft it is released to the public. Citizens have 30 days from the release of the draft to submit comments to the RGU, in this case, the county. The comments are then collected and the Winona County Board will determine whether a more expansive environmental study is needed.

However, when the EAWs for the mines were released in October, the first page of both the Dabelstein and Yoder reports included inaccurate information. The EAWs both stated that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) was the RGU, that it had prepared the EAWs, and that citizen comments should be directed to the MPCA, rather than to Winona County.

Several citizens pointed out the errors during the Winona County Board meeting on November 6. Joe Morse spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting and informed commissioners that the documents included substantial errors, and that citizens were confused about where comments on the EAWs should be directed. Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman then began contacting state officials and mine representatives to inform them of the errors and determine what the county could do to correct them.

State officials were contacted, and determined that the EAWs needed to be re-released with the errors corrected. Additionally, the 30-day comment period is expected to start over when the documents are amended and released to the public again. Gilman informed county commissioners of the flub Tuesday.

“This was an oversight, certainly not something I’m happy about,” said Gilman during the board meeting. “The public was misinformed.”

Gilman noted that the preamble to the EAWs, which contained the errors, was submitted by a professional consultant acting on behalf of the mine applicants, and his office considered it standard and, thus, did not alter it.

Citizens have also criticized the county because the information in the EAWs was so similar to the information submitted by the mine applicants’ consultant. Johanna Rupprecht of the Land Stewardship Project said the county’s role in the EAW preparation, as outlined in EQB guidelines, showed the county had more work to do on the documents. She said the county was supposed to conduct independent review and analysis of the information submitted by the applicants, and that any “conclusions” about environmental impacts should come from the county, not the mine applicants. “The language in there is what the [mine] proposers wrote,” she said. “That’s not how that is supposed to work. The RGU is responsible for that independent analysis. Essentially, I think it was an issue of the county not exercising enough independent judgement.”

Gilman said Tuesday that the county essentially “owns” the EAW after the applicant submits the information, and the county was responsible for more than just edits for grammar. “This is in contrast to what was believed to be a cursory review for grammatical, clarity and scope issues,” he wrote in an e-mail to county commissioners.

Minnesota Proppant

Minnesota Proppant is a proposed sand truck-to-rail transportation facility that would also process millions of tons of sand annually at the site adjacent to the city of St. Charles. While the project is considered separate from the two proposed Saratoga Township mines, Minnesota Proppant spokesperson Jennifer Dessner opposed the plan to re-release the EAWs.

That opposition drew questions from Gilman and commissioners about how the mines and the proposed processing and rail facility are related. “[Dessner] is not listed as an official contact on the Yoder and Dabelstein sites, nor is Minnesota Proppant mentioned anywhere in the [mine] applications, raising the question of the relationship between the Yoder and Dabelstein sites and the proposed processing site in St. Charles as a collective action,” wrote Gilman in an e-mail to commissioners. On Tuesday, he said he would look into the matter and report back to the board.

The mines

The EAWs for the Dabelstein and Yoder mine applications are nearly identical, and each proposed mine includes a similar plan to harvest the valuable sand used in the gas and oil industry.

The Dabelstein quarry is planned for a 36.5 acre site and the Yoder quarry is on 38.2 acres, both adjacent to County Road 6. Each would haul 300 truckloads daily from the sites, the trucks traveling from County Road 6 to County Road 29, from there on Interstate 90 to Highway 43 and finally to a sand processing facility in the city of Winona.



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