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St. Charles Township sends 'crystal clear' message on frac sand facility

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ST. CHARLES — There can be no question now. The people of St. Charles Township have spoken. And now the chairman of the township board has spoken. Minnesota Proppant's proposed sand-loading rail facility is not wanted.

Jim Ruhberg, chairman of the township council, spoke Tuesday night at the St. Charles City Council meeting, telling the city's leaders that the township — from its residents to its township board — is against the project.

"We will side with our residents and say we oppose this project," Ruhberg said. "Everyone who has come forward has spoken against it, and we feel this represents the majority of our residents. We agree with the wishes of most of our residents and oppose this project."

Minnesota Proppant LLC is proposing to mine the sand about 6 miles south of St. Charles, send it through slurry pipe to a plant just east of St. Charles, which would process it by washing and sorting it into sizes. It would fill more than 100 train cars each day with the sand. The $70 million plant would process 3 million tons of frac sand annually, serving as a rail transportation hub for the sand mined from Winona, Fillmore and Houston counties.

The silica sand found in this region is a valuable ingredient in hydraulic fracturing, also called fracing. Sand, water and chemicals are pumped underground at high pressure to break up shale rock and allow oil or natural gas to be extracted.

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Ruhberg asked St. Charles Mayor William Spitzer if he had any questions regarding the township's feelings. "Does that clarify our position?"

"Crystal clear," Spitzer said. "Thanks."

Ruhberg admitted that the township had been ambiguous in the past, voting against orderly annexation though not voting against the project as a whole. Part of the reason, he said, was that he wanted to wait until he knew more about the project and its effects on the township and its residents. But talk of increased traffic and health concerns from silica sand particles in the air has made up his mind.

Half a dozen residents also spoke out against the project, including representatives from Concerned Citizens for St. Charles, a group that has collected 1,055 signatures asking to city to adopt a resolution forbidding the processing, loading and mining of silica sand.

"I hope we can get the ball rolling to get the ordinance passed," said Dan Hursh. "As much as we want a business or several businesses to come to St. Charles, we don't want one that comes with those warning labels attached."

In other business, the city council agreed to keep its police force and search for a new police chief. Spitzer said that if the city chose to eliminate its police force, it would then need to contract with Winona County to have sheriff's deputies patrolling the city. And while the city would save about $20,000 per year, the extra cost is made up in the value of having a dedicated police force.

"I think having our own police department locally gives us a little more control," said councilman John Schaber.

The plan to have county coverage would also include time each week when no law officers would be covering St. Charles specifically.

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"I think the services that are provided by a local police department, the council decided the benefits outweigh the savings we're receive," Spitzer said.

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