A major frac sand proposal for southeastern Minnesota, which stalled two years when the state demanded an extensive environmental review, is back on track with a $130,450 payment made to regulators to fund the first phase of study.
Minnesota Sands LLC delivered the cash in late December for the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB), founder Rick Frick said, and will submit a revised business plan by the end of February involving several related frac sand operations in at least four counties: Winona, Fillmore, Olmsted, Goodhue and possibly Wabasha.
The plan is to synchronize mining, processing and transportation operations at various sites so that no single location in the network is overrun by activity, he said.
"We're going to do this," Frick said. "It just took a lot longer than I thought."
The news prompted immediate criticism from one of the groups that successfully pressed regulators to require an environmental impact statement — the most expensive and thorough analysis the state can mandate for a project.
"This project would be devastating to the rural communities where it's proposed,'' said Johanna Rupprecht, policy organizer for the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project in Lewiston, Minn.
She said opponents believe the comprehensive environmental review will "clearly show that this project must not be permitted." Among the concerns are lung disease from air pollution and contamination of drinking water in the environmentally sensitive karst geology of the region. Rupprecht said the step by Minnesota Sands is "important news because it clearly shows that the threat to southeastern Minnesota from the frac sand industry is still very far from over."
EQB Executive Director Will Seuffert confirmed the payment and said the agency expects the company to submit data soon, in time for the initial review, or "scoping," to begin by Feb. 25. Seuffert said it's customary for project proposers to fund the state's environmental reviews. More money will be required from Minnesota Sands as the analysis advances, he said.
In Minnesota, full environmental impact reviews can take a year or more because they include detailed descriptions of a project and its anticipated effects on air quality, drinking water, surface water, soils, wildlife, roads, traffic safety, agriculture and people. While the review is in process, all permitting decisions are on hold. "I want to do it right so no one can complain when it's over," Frick said.
The sand mining entrepreneur, who lives in Houston, Minn., said his financial partners in Minnesota Sands are "average people like me" who live in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He declined to identify the group, saying, "they don't want to be out in the public."
An earlier group of investors associated with Frick fell apart in March 2013 when its bid to build a large frac sand processing center in St. Charles, Minn., was killed by the City Council there. Frick said he will wait until his group gives its data to the EQB before disclosing the proposed locations for Minnesota Sands.
Top officials at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Health were among those who pushed for a joint environmental review of Frick's proposal back in 2013. They said Minnesota needs to understand the possible cumulative effects of the proposed operations on health and the environment. It will be the first such review for a Minnesota frac sand project.