Winona Co. approves first frac sand mine

Mt. Frac
A pile of silica sand dubbed "Mt. Frac" is part of what's fueled the concern among residents in Winona over the growing sand mining industry. Winona County will get its first silica sand mine nearly a year after it was first proposed. Critics say the mine should get stricter environmental review, similar to a study being conducted on several proposed mines nearby.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Critics say a Winona County mine should undergo stricter environmental review, similar to a study being conducted on several proposed mines nearby.

But the board of commissioners decided such detailed review was not needed for the county's first silica sand mine.

The Nisbit mine will cover 19 acres in Saratoga Township. Developer Tom Rowekamp said he will hire about four people to work in the mine, and independent truckers to carry the sand for processing to the city of Winona.

Rowekamp said the mine should not be lumped together with other projects that have volunteered for more detailed environmental review. Those mines have not applied for permits yet, whereas his is ready to go, he said.

Map: Frac sand mines in SE Minn.

Approval comes with 40 conditions, including requirements to control dust, noise, erosion and protect water quality. Rowekamp said he will be able to meet those conditions, but resents the rate the county intends to charge him for road impact, which will be 22.5 cents per ton per mile. With 70 to 140 trips a day on County Road 14, Rowekamp said he could pay to rebuild ten miles of road in three years of operation.

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"It's kind of a sore spot with me, but in order to do business in Minnesota, I will do what needs to be done," Rowekamp said.

Some local residents have been fighting the mine ever since it was proposed last August. They petitioned the county board to require an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, a relatively quick overview of possible environmental effects which can indicate the need for a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement.

In April, the county board voted not to require that more detailed study. Critics appealed that decision, saying the county failed to look at possible cumulative effects of other proposed mines nearby.

A court ruling could take as long as a year, and it doesn't make sense to let the mine start operating until the decision is known, said Johanna Rupprecht, a policy organizer with the Land Stewardship Project.

"And it's very possible that eventually, if the appeal is successful, there will be an EIS ordered on this mine," Rupprecht said. "That will have to be done on an existing and permitted operation, which is a messy situation that I don't think anyone would want to have happen. And it's surprising the county board was willing to take that risk."

Rowekamp said the county approval was long enough in coming. He said he chose the site in Saratoga Township because it was higher terrain than the surrounding cropland. He plans to restore it to prairie when the mine is exhausted, in three to five years.

"Basically all I'm doing is lowering a hill and putting it back to prairie again. When it's completed and trees have grown, people will never even know where it was," Rowekamp said.

Laws passed recently by the state Legislature will not affect the Nisbit mine: it is smaller than 20 acres and more than a mile from a trout stream.

The mine could open as early as July.