By Charlie Warner
The first real test of the county’s moratorium on new silica frac sand mining operations may be brewing.
County Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan informed the Houston County Board that Minnesota Sand plans to “pull out huge amounts of sand” from an existing sand mining operation on the Tracie and Michelle Erickson property, located just north of Ferndale Golf Course in the northwest corner of Yucatan Township near the Houston-Fillmore county line.
According to Scanlan, the property in question has been an existing sand mine since 1992 when former property owner Al Thorson was granted a permit. Sand obtained from the mine was used for area road projects.
Over the past 20 years the county has granted a series of five-year permit extensions. The current five-year extension will expire at the end of the year.
Scanlan was notified that the current property owners planned to conduct increased mining of the sand to remove approximately two million cubic yards in the 19-acre sand mine before the end of the year.
Back in 1992, the county did not require Thorson to submit an operation and reclamation plan, even though zoning ordinances 20 years ago required it.
So Scanlan requested a plan now, which included the massive increase in sand extraction and the proposed haul route. There was no mention of using copious amounts of water in the operation and reclamation plan, however.
A red flag popped up when Scanlan’s office received a notice from the DNR that a water usage permit had been applied for by Rick Frick of Minnesota Sand to pump an anticipated 42 million gallons of water a year from a well he planned to drill on the Erickson property. The water would be used in a sand washing operation.
According to the permit application, the anticipated amount of water was 42 million gallons, but the request was for “up to 84 million gallons per year.”
“Using the 42 million gallon figure, that would be 115,000 gallons of water a day or 4,800 gallons per hour,” Scanlan said in an interview following the meeting. “Their plans call for the drilling of a six-inch well. I don’t see how a well that size could pump 4,800 gallons per hour.”
While the permit indicated that the washing operation would not include any chemical additives, Scanlan said a big concern was where all this water would be going and errosion issues.
“Trying to extract that much sand out of a pit in that short of time presents a lot of questions in itself,” Scanlan said. “But when you add in the water usage permit, there are many serious issues that must be addressed before anything can be approved.”
According to Houston County Highway Engineer Brian Pogodzinski, the average belly-dump tractor trailer used to transport sand can haul between 18 and 20 cubic yards per load (depending on how wet it is). Using the high side of the estimate, it would take 100,000 semi loads to move two million yards of sand.
The haul route in the plans submitted by Minnesota Sand is Highway 16 to Highway 43 through Rushford and on to Winona.
“Is there anything we can do about this with the moratorium we put in place?” Board Chairman Jack Miller asked Scanlan. Scanlan replied the moratorium only pertains to new operations and this mine has been a permitted use for 20 years.
“If they want to mine sand, I guess that slipped through the cracks. But I don’t feel we should allow the washing part of this,” Commissioner Justin Zmyewski said.
“Wouldn’t the washing part of this be a new use?” Commissioner Teresa Walter asked.
Scanlan said that it would. He added that with a water usage permit request of that magnitude, the DNR will probably require a number of studies to be conducted first, and that won’t guarantee that the permit will be approved.
Walter said she feels the county’s special attorney dealing with the frac sand mining issue, Tom Canan, should be contacted.
Miller asked if the state could step in an curtail the amount of semi tractor traffic that would be generated. Scanlan said Mn/DOT had approved the Highway 16 access to the original owner in 1992.
At the present time, the county board can only contact Canan and get his opinion on the issue and see how the DNR will handle the water usage permit.
It appeared, however, county commissioners were quite concerned with the scope of the project and the many issues it would pose to persons living near the sand mine and those living along the haul route.
By Charlie Warner