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Sand mining company wins round in Wabasha: No environmental review

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Silica sand
A truck dumps a load of silica sand at Modern Transport Rail loading terminal in Winona, Minn on Feb. 13, 2012.The arrival of silica sand-related businesses to southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin has sparked controversy and discussion across the region. Superior Sand Systems wants to build a silica sand storage and loading facility along the Canadian Pacific tracks on the northwest side of the Mississippi River town of Wabasha.
AP Photo/The Winona Daily News, Andrew Link

The Wabasha City Council has decided not to require Calgary-based Superior Sand Systems to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, disappointing dozens of residents and environmentalists in the region who had petitioned the state Environmental Quality Board for the review.

Superior Sand Systems wants to build a silica sand storage and loading facility along the Canadian Pacific tracks on the northwest side of the Mississippi River town.

Petitioners had hoped the environmental review would identify the proposed facility's health, traffic and safety concerns. The petitioners formed a group called Friends of Wabasha.

"Our common belief is that insufficient analysis has been done regarding the trucking through the city and regarding the loading facility itself," said Craig Falkum, one of the group's leaders. "The city has completed a checklist for the conditional use permit, but we believe an operation of this magnitude cannot be adequately addressed through a checklist."

Falkum and the Friends of Wabasha wanted the in-depth review, known as the Environmental Assessment Worksheet. Council members voted 5 to 1 against the requirement, deferring to the city's planning board to implement guidelines for the proposed project.

Falkum told the council he believes the small city of 2,500 is ill-equipped to handle the process on its own, and said that review should be undertaken by consultants and professionals who will help the city determine the risks of the operation.

"There are too many residences in the nearby area, as well as prominent industry and a clinic and a hospital to allow this operation to proceed without a thorough investigation," Falkum said.

Mt. Frac
A pile of silica sand dubbed "Mt. Frac" in Winona, Minn. Nearby, in Wabahsa, the City Council has decided against requiring Calgary-based Superior Sand Systems to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. The company wants to build a silica sand storage and loading facility there.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Superior Sand is asking for permission to move as many as 300 trucks of sand through the facility each day. It proposes to operate seven days a week and to have up to eight silos that hold as much as 2,500 tons of sand each at a maximum height of 75 feet.

Most of the sand would be hauled from Wisconsin either to North Dakota or Texas, where energy and mining companies would use the sand to extract oil and natural gas from the ground in the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Paul van Eijl, a lands acquisitions manager with Superior Sand Systems, said the company is working with the city's planning board to address many of the residents' concerns through the standard permitting process.

"You know, the citizens, obviously they're concerned. Frac sand is a very controversial issue and I do believe that we've addressed these issues through the CUP process. We've spent so many hours with the city trying to address issues of truck traffic, etcetera," van Eijl said.

Local governments regulate these mining operations, but the rules are a patchwork of ordinances and zoning laws that vary by township and county.

At the meeting, van Eijl argued the city was out of its jurisdiction in requiring an environmental review, citing a congressional act that prohibits states from regulating the railroads.

Council members and the city attorney agreed.

Councilmember Catherine Gallenberger said the requirements in the regular permitting process should be enough to thoroughly assess the project. She said the review demanded by some residents would cost too much.

"How much are we willing to spend?" Gallenberger said. "And where is that money going to come from? Does that mean we have to raise the taxes again next year to the degree we raised them this year so we can pay for this possible fight that we may have? Or should we just continue on the course that we have set in our policies, which hopefully, maybe we're going be wrong, but hopefully will protect us."

The city's planning board will vote on the proposed facility today. If approved, Superior Sand Systems expects to begin operating as early as Thursday.