Public outcry heard over Environmental Assessment Worksheet

By Emily Bialkowski
Caledonia Argus

In addition to trying to create restrictions and oversight over any new sand mining operation in Houston County, the Houston County Board is still negotiating with Minnesota Sands and its attempt to mine the Tracy and Michelle Erickson property.

Interpretation over a conditional use permit on the property has been both contentious and confusing.

An August decision by the county board to order an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) on the mine is being executed, but members of the public were  astounded to learn the firm preparing the worksheet is G-Cubed, a firm they say has too many connections to the operation to perform unbiased work.

“I asked that you support the call for an EAW, and I was alarmed to find out it is being prepared by the project that intends to do the sand mining. That is absurd,” resident Dr. Chad Olness said at the Oct. 9 county board meeting. He added, “I think we have a moral, ethical obligation to see that these studies are done transparently and properly.”

Minnesota Sands declined comment on the issue in a follow-up email. Jennifer Dessner, Minnesota Sands spokesperson, said, “We thank you for the opportunity to comment on these statements, but at this time we decline any comment as we are in pending litigation with Houston County regarding the Erickson site.”

County board members said they thought the worksheet was being executed by an unbiased third party and seemed surprised by the turn of events.

Commissioner Teresa Walter asked, “Why didn’t we hire an outside person to begin with?”

Environmental Services Director Rick Frank said the county has ordered such worksheets on other projects, and the applicant has historically selected their own firm to conduct the EAW.

But members of the public said frac sand mining has no history in Houston County.

Frank continued and said the EAW process includes a time when the Department of Natural Resources, the public and other germane parties will be solicited for comment.

If concerns are flagged at that point they need to be addressed by the applicant, Frank said.

The ensuing discussion became a whirlwind of county employees reciting statutes, the county board chairman getting up and trying to locate the zoning director and members of the public pressing for more transparency.

Even members of the media and the county auditor had to ask what exactly the board wanted to pursue next.

“We should have had more involvement. The contentiousness of this situation warranted as much openness and unbiased opinion as we can muster. There’s a trust factor here that I think we’ve completely obliterated,” Commissioner Jack Miller said.

As discussion continued the sticking point seemed to focus on when a third party evaluator comes in and who pays for it.

Should a third party be involved during the creation of the document or during the evaluation of document, was the question.

The idea that the third party should execute the EAW from the beginning was loudly advocated for by the public, and the board agreed.

“I guess the question I have now  is, is the train too far down the track,” Miller said.

“We would have been better off hiring a third party from the beginning,” Walter added.

Frank warned there is a legal element to this and wondered if their interpretation of the statutes would hold water.

Legal representation was not available, or scheduled, for the meeting.

The board asked that a list of viable third party firms be generated.