St. Charles highway for frac sand may imperil Amish way of life

Buggies, sand-laden trucks could fight for room.

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Amish resident David Schmucker and his sons Daniel, 8, and Jonathan, 12, travel along County Road 37 near St. Charles, Minn.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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ST. CHARLES, MINN. - County Road 37 is one of those breathtaking country lanes that winds through green hills and -- in this hot summer -- corn that is head high in July.

It's also the main thoroughfare for about 80 Amish families who live and travel by buggy along it, and who are now taking the unusual step of speaking out publicly on a community controversy: a proposal to turn their county road into a frac-sand highway.

"We don't go to court," said Jake Shetler, an Amish farmer and cabinetmaker who's raising 14 children in his home along a sharp curve in the road. "It's against our religion. But I will do everything I can to stop this."

"This'' is a massive facility to wash and ship sand that a local company has proposed on 300 acres of farm fields just east of this small town near Rochester. The plant would supply the fast-growing oil and gas hydrofracking industry that has taken off in states from North Dakota to Texas to Pennsylvania. Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota are on the brink of a new boom because the particular kind of sand used in hydrofracking makes up the distinctive green, rolling hills in this part of the state and the bluffs of the Mississippi River.

Developers of the St. Charles proposal, called Farm2Rail, have said in public meetings that the sand-washing facility, plus 14 more agricultural and industrial warehouses that could be part of the project, would be enclosed and out of sight.

But the sand would come from mines yet to be dug across this band of Minnesota -- at a rate of one semitrailer truck per minute when the plant is open. And local residents say that could be just the beginning.

Debate goes on

From Chippewa Falls and Stockholm in Wisconsin, to Red Wing and Winona in Minnesota, communities are debating the pros and cons of various proposals for open pit and underground sand mines, plus washing and transport facilities.

St. Charles, however, has a significant advantage over most: the railroad needed to ship long trains of sand to the oil and gas fields in other parts of the country.

City officials say the project would bring 40 to 60 jobs to town, a real windfall since it lost some 200 jobs when a turkey-processing plant burned down a few years ago. It would also add a badly needed commercial customer for the city-owned utilities.

Geoff Griffin, a civil engineer and spokesman for Farm2Rail, declined to comment for this story, and another company official did not respond to a request for an interview.

But some residents say they fear what would happen to their little town if St. Charles becomes the regional epicenter for a new mining industry.

"If society has decided we need lower fuel costs, so be it," said Fred Troendle, a financial adviser who lives on another road that borders the 300-acre site. "But let's not change the quality of life for an entire community."

A way of life

The Amish say the truck traffic on County Road 37 wouldn't change their way of life -- it would destroy it.

The latest plan calls for the road to be paved and straightened so trucks wouldn't have to go through downtown St. Charles to get to the processing facility.

The plan also envisions 900 round trips a day.

"I don't know if you would see anyone staying," Shetler said.

He and his family are part of a community of some 500 Amish living in the area since its founders moved there from Iowa in the mid-1970s. They pay property taxes, but are not all that concerned "about earthly stuff," Shetler said. And they rarely take part in local politics.

But now, many in Shetler's community are seeking ways to make their opinions known.

Shetler's house and workshop are part of a cluster of homes and a barn full of goats at a point where the road takes a 90-degree turn. At the base of his driveway is a one-room white-frame schoolhouse for the Amish children, one of three scattered along the road. On Wednesday morning, a tiny pony and buggy were tethered outside.

"We can't go anywhere without using this road," Shetler said, standing outside his shop in sawdust-covered work pants and suspenders. Two of his youngest sons, barefoot and blond, listened intently as he described the community's lifeline.

From the Shetlers' home, the road heads south, lined on both sides with Amish farms with newly mowed hay fields as well as businesses including a buggy-and-wagon repair shop, a grocery store and a greenhouse. On the other side of Interstate 90 is an auction house where twice a week they sell locally grown produce to hundreds of buyers.

Shetler and others said they don't object to sand mining; several of the Amish farmers have been asked to sell their land, and some are interested.

"I got three hills," said Eli Gingerich, who lives nearby. "My question is, what's it going to be when they are done with it?" If he could farm it afterwards, he said, then it might be worthwhile.

Shetler said three Amish landowners have signed contracts with sand mining interests -- but all three include agreements to keep trucks off their road.

Now, there is talk about using tunnels or conveyer belts to move the sand from mine sites to the processing facility, and that might work, Shetler said. But the mines could be many miles away, and the sand could come from many directions.

Shetler said he isn't interested in selling his wooded hill across the road. He's traveled to Amish communities around the country, and he believes his is just perfect the way it is.

"It's hilly, but not too hilly," he said. "It's flat, but not too flat. I don't care about selling it."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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