How intense has the debate over frac sand become? It's brought the local Anabaptists into a public discussion in St. Charles, Minnesota.
Via the Winona Daily News, MPR's Elizabeth Baier reports in Amish speak out against frac sand facility near St. Charles:
The rolling countryside near St. Charles is a place of horse-drawn buggies and one-room schoolhouses, woodworking shops and limited electricity.
Settled by 60 Amish families, it’s a place of simple living, where farmers like Daniel Gingerich raise livestock.
Gingerich, a 44-year-old bishop in the isolated community, fears the burgeoning frac sand mining industry in southeast Minnesota could harm their way of life.
“I wish the sand was 100 miles away,” he said.
About 10 miles from the cluster of Amish farms, Faribault, Minn.-based Farm2Rail has proposed building a 300-acre rail yard that would serve as a washing and loading facility for frac sand, as well as for grain.
That concerns Gingerich, who raises sheep, cows and chickens on his 111-acre farm. His life is simple and largely private. However, he’s voiced his opposition to the rail yard at township meetings.
Gingerich said transporting sand by truck from nearby mines to the proposed rail facility would dramatically affect the community.
“I’d say the biggest issue is safety issues, ’cause we have horses and buggies on the road,” he said. “They’re talking a minimum of 400 to 800 trucks a day. Every minute or so, there’d be a truck going and we have our school children on the road.
How radical is it for a bishop to leave his Amish paradise to speak up at public meeting? Baier reports:
Lee Zook, an Amish expert and retired professor of sociology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, said the Amish lifestyle — including the use of horses and buggies — might seem like a novelty to outsiders. But he said increased truck traffic can create real safety problems for Amish communities that are completely interdependent on each other. . . .
Zook said the Amish teach humility and avoid actions that draw attention to themselves. They wear simple clothing, avoid wearing cosmetics, jewelry or having their pictures taken as a way to prevent pride.
That’s why he thinks it’s a big deal that members of the St. Charles Amish community are voicing concerns publicly about the proposed rail facility.
“Many times, when they run into conflict with regulations and so forth, they end up resisting those on a very quiet basis rather than making any kind of protest,” Zook said. “So for them to go to meetings and voice concerns about this, is kind of an interesting way of, kind of a change.”
For Gingerich, the proposed sand transport facility is important enough for him to attend township meetings. He’s been to public forums on other issues in the past, but said he usually avoids public confrontations.
It's the Amish equivalent of radical direct action, a buttonless Occupation. Baier reports that the Amish bishop said that the community would agree to a system underground pipes or conveyor belts to move the sand, thus removing the need for so much industrial truck traffic on the roads.
Baier notes that other locals are resisting Farm2Rail's plans:
Farm2Rail plans to work with Winona County on the proposal. It initially planned to work with the city of St. Charles on annexing the adjacent St. Charles Township where the facility is planned, but township officials voted late last month to deny the annexation.
In mid-June, Post Bulletin staff writer Jill Jensen reported in Some neighbors oppose proposed St. Charles frac-sand facility:
Spitzer said the city council approved an environmental assessment worksheet Tuesday night, which will look at the facility's impact on traffic and the environment. The next step would be to annex Farm2Rail's property into the city so it would have the benefits of sewer, water and police services like any St. Charles resident, Spitzer said.
He said the city will look at all options and alternatives for the project, which could generate about 50 jobs for St. Charles.
"We're not going to jeopardize neighbors for economic development," [St. Charles Mayor Bill] Spitzer said.
Some of those neighbors agreed, declining to be annexed.
It's easy to understand why this sort of bottom-feeding industrial development might seem attractive to St. Charles. In 2009, the town's major employer, North Star Foods, closed after a fire so severe that the town had to be evacuated.
In a May article, Opportunity from disaster: The St. Charles Economic Development Authority, the Post Bulletin looked at the city's decision to development an industrial park (not part of the Farm2Rail site), though they had yet to score their first tenant. Curiously, though, the natural beauty and outdoor recreation that frac sand mining threatens are among the selling points for the location:
Ever the optimist, the city councilman points out the pluses of the site. In addition to being the only business park right on the interstate for a 100-mile stretch and the park’s visibility from the interstate, Getz said the site blends well with the rest of what St. Charles has to offer
“You have the traffic on I-90, and you’re just about a half mile from downtown with all its traffic,” he said. “If we can get that hotel or other lodging facility, they’ll have access to Whitewater State Park. There’s the bike trail being built that goes through St. Charles.
“The wheels of progress turn kind of slow, but they do turn.”
A sand-hauling rail yard that would facilitate hauling away parts of the region illustrates an economic development of desperation, the open veins of southeastern Minnesota.
Winona County had received eight permit applications from small silica sand mining sites near St. Charles, the Post Bulletin reported in June, but none of them have been refiled since the county's three-month interim ordinance ran its course. The proposed rail facility is part of that mix:
Winona County received eight small silica sand mine proposals near St. Charles prior to adopting its three-month moratorium, which expired in early May. Jason Gilman, the county's planning and environmental services director, said Tuesday that none of the permits has been refiled — presumably because St. Charles Township rejected a proposed 300-acre rail load out facility that would make such mines more profitable by cutting down on trucking costs.
"Some of these mine operators might be waiting for that (rail) to come to fruition because it would ultimately affect their economics," Gilman said. He said the only other option is to transport the product to Winona. "There's a lot of moving parts to this industry."
A proposed silica mine near Chatfield was filed and then withdrawn in 2011, but it put Olmsted County officials on alert.
Olmsted County's board declined to put a moratorium in place, but it is considering an updated transportation ordinance this summer. Hauling heavy loads of sand takes its toll on county and township roads in addition to the safety concerns raised by the Amish.
Witness the concerns from across the river in Buffalo County, Wisconsin. The Winona Daily News reports in Gilmanton sand facility approved; 6th frac sand permit issued in county:
Many people voiced or mailed concerns about safety impacts of routing sand trucks on Hwy. 88 and its numerous sharp curves and blind corners. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has said portions of Hwy. 88 are sub-standard, including narrow lanes in the town of Lincoln and a winding hill near Gilmanton.
A series of public hearings were held prior to the permit’s approval, with as many as 200 people showing up to support or protest the facility.
Buffalo County has now approved six conditional-use permits for mining sand. None of the operations are running.
The PB notes that local government across Southeastern Minnesota is scrambling to deal with this new industrial-scale style mining:
Five counties in southeastern Minnesota and a handful of cities and townships have adopted silica sand moratoriums since last fall to allow elected officials time to update their ordinances. Wabasha County extended its interim ordinance Monday for up to another full year.
Despite the obvious concerns posed by the industrial scale of the mining, with hauling the sand cutting across county and regional lines, the Dayton administration is taking the position that this is a local concern. So far, local governments have provided the only defense for local citizens concerned with their health, safe, property values and future.
Perhaps it's time for the state government to recognize the larger problems posed by this new industry for existing Minnesota brands (like tourism in lovely Southeastern Minnesota) and do the right thing. While local government is forced to cope with frac sand mining, it's clearly not a local issue.
Photo: Aerial view of a frac sand mining operation in Wisconsin, by Jim Tittle. Used with permission.