Frac sand mining in southeastern Minnesota was dealt a serious setback Tuesday night when the city of St. Charles adopted a resolution advocated by local foes of the industry.
The City Council unanimously passed the resolution denying all annexation requests from landowners in neighboring St. Charles Township who are aligned with frac sand developer Minnesota Proppant LLC for a major project.
The company had sought city annexation of its proposed site, now farmland, because township officials were against the project.
Mayor Bill Spitzer said the issue was tearing the community apart. His biggest reason for saying “no” to the project, he said, was to stay on good terms with the township. “Once you start destroying relationships, you can’t move forward,” Spitzer said.
Minnesota Proppant officials did not return phone calls Tuesday, and the mayor said there were no company representatives at the overflowing meeting at City Hall.
Local resident Travis Lange, who spearheaded citizen opposition to the project, said he was shocked Saturday when the mayor told him the issue was coming to a head. For more than a year, city leaders entertained the idea of hosting the frac sand project to create jobs, boost the town’s coffers and replace a local food plant that burned to the ground in 2009 and didn’t reopen.
“It’s great news for us,” Lange said. “It’s a victory, but do I think Minnesota Proppant is going away? Absolutely not.”
Jeff Broberg, a geologic consultant to the frac sand industry who lives near St. Charles, said any meaningful expansion of industrial sand mining in the area will depend on the kind of large-scale, rail-aided logistics envisioned by Minnesota Proppant. He said that in his view, fear-mongering and negative exaggerations poisoned public discussion of the St. Charles proposal. “It’s a setback for the industry and for St. Charles,” Broberg said.
The mayor also said public debate was tainted by misrepresentations and personal attacks. “We all need to work a little harder at how we talk with each other, how we listen to each other and most importantly, how we treat each other,” Spitzer said.
Minnesota Proppant’s proposed processing plant and rail depot was priced at $55 million to $70 million. Foes and supporters said from the start that it could serve as a catalyst for a frenzy of sand mining in the region. Plans called for some raw materials to be fed to the site through a miles-long slurry pipeline, but more sand would have been hauled in heavy trucks over local roads and state highways.
The proposed resolution stated several reasons the city is denying annexation, including “significant opposition from its citizens,” a desire to “maintain positive intergovernmental relations” with the township, and its own concerns over potential environmental, financial, regulatory and transportation-related impacts of the project.
Dave Christianson, planning director for the state Department of Transportation, said last year that St. Charles could become the state’s frac sand epicenter.
The project promised 50 new jobs, but citizens feared the loss of tourism, depletion of groundwater used to wash the sand, pollution of groundwater from frac sand waste, lung disease from airborne crystalline silica dust and unsafe truck traffic.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health and the state Environmental Quality Board have all taken a direct interest in the St. Charles project because of its potential to anchor a wide-reaching hub-and-spoke operation where sand would be mined at sites in Winona, Fillmore and Houston counties and transported to St. Charles for washing, sorting and loading onto long trains.
Lange’s nonprofit group, Concerned Citizens for St. Charles, gathered more than 1,000 signatures from the city’s registered voters, nearly 60 percent of the total, for a petition opposing annexation.
Formally speaking, the Winona County Board could intervene and grant Minnesota Proppant a permit to operate at the St. Charles site. But Jason Gilman, planning and environmental services director for Winona County, said that was unlikely. “Technically, yes, it could happen, but politically, it would be very difficult,” he said. “Our board has been very respectful of local control.” Lange said he expects Minnesota Proppant to look for a new site in the area.