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Minnesota Sands agrees to environmental impact statement

WINONA — A full environmental impact statement, which could take a year or more to complete, will be done on two silica sand quarries proposed for Saratoga Township south of St. Charles.

That delay, and strong opposition from residents of St. Charles and St. Charles Township, has put on hold a major sand-processing plant proposed for east of St. Charles.

Minnesota Sands, which was to operate the Yoder and Dabelstein mines and also build the processing plant, told the Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Department of its decision at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. Because of that, Minnesota Sands' request for a conditional-use permit to open the mines has been tabled.

The single-sentence letter was signed by engineer Geoffrey Griffin, Minnesota Sands President Rick Frick and landowners Roger Dabelstein and Ida Yoder.

Mitch Bublitz, of Houston, a spokesman for Minnesota Sands, said the study is a way to put all the questions about silica mining to rest.

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"I think this EIS will remove all those concerns," he said. "They don't know what is in the hearts and minds of the people who are trying to get this done … this will bring everybody up to the same speed and should answer all of their concerns."

When the smaller environmental assessment worksheet, which can be a precursor to an EIS, was done, nearly all public comments were negative. Opponents cited noise, the number of trucks, water pollution and fear of silicosis as reasons they wanted at least a full EIS. Also, the Minnesota Health Department and Pollution Control Agency have asked for the EIS because of many of the same concerns.

Silica sand is sent out of state to be mixed with water and chemicals and injected into rock formations holding oil or natural gas. The mixture fractures the rock and the sand helps keep the fractures open.

The full environmental study will help appease those who oppose mines, Bublitz said. "Why not just do it?" he asked.

The landowners who want to lease their land to Minnesota Sands "are good, decent people," he said. "They respect the land … this is their backyard."

But they haven't done a good job at public relations and letting people know how many trucks would really come down their roads (it's not nearly as many as many people think) so the EIS is a way to clear the air and open better communications, he said.

The St. Charles processing plant is technically a separate operation, but is also on hold, Bublitz said. Minnesota Sands plans to close its office there in about a week.

"I would say it's definitely on hold," Bublitz said. "You can only fight so many battles." 

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Also, St. Charles Township has barred unloading, processing and loading onto rail cars any silica sand, he said.

Winona County Planner Jason Gilman said the scope of the EIS, and which governmental unit will do it, will be determined in a few days. It's possible it will be Winona County but if the scope goes into quarries that might be opened in Fillmore County, the state might get involved, he said.

It's also possible that a processing plant could be studied as part of of the study, he said.

This is the first EIS for silica mining in southeastern Minnesota, he said, and could set the tone and direction for other operations. "I think this is certainly precedent-setting," Gilman said.

Jim Gurley, a member of Winona Area Citizens Concerned About Silica Mining and the Land Stewardship Project, welcomed the announcement.

"It's huge news," he said. "This is big."

"I think this is the right decision," he said. "An EIS is obviously called for under Minnesota law. I think they were right to go ahead and voluntarily agree to it."

Johanna Rupprecht, Land Stewardship Project policy organizer, said that while Minnesota Sands asked for the EIS voluntarily, "it's clear that because of the public pressure" the study couldn't be avoided.

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She wants to make sure it is done right. "We are gong to be very vigilant and make sure it gets done right," she said.

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