The silica sand project sites under the operation of Minnesota Sands, LLC, will now be subject to a General Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) study by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB).

In a decision on March 20, the EQB accepted a request by Fillmore, Houston and Winona Counties for the EQB to become the Regulating Government Unit (RGU) for all silica sand mines under Minnesota Sands operation in those three counties. The decision will impact the control Minnesota Sands has on moving forward with developing those mines for hydraulic fracturing purposes. The EQB, as a state agency, will now take over the EIS which will study in greater depth the various effects of having the four silica sand mines in the tri-county area.

Fillmore County Commissioner Duane Bakke testified to the EQB on March 20 on the need for it to take control of the general EIS. Talking about the hearing, Bakke said he told the EQB the three counties felt it made more sense to have a state agency take over projects that are affecting all three counties.

The EQB has already asked Winona County to do an EIS for a mine within their limits. Minnesota Sands had also made it clear that they would be willing to do an EIS, which is more in depth than the already completed Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW), on all of their proposed sites.

In response to this decision by the EQB, Fillmore County had drafted a letter of request asking them to be the RGU for the general EIS on all sites.

"There wasn't much controversy on the decision," shared Bakke on the hearing. "We were expecting it to occur and we were just there to answer questions."

David Williams also testified to the EQB as an opponent of the silica sand industry. Williams shared, "There is a real sense from the EQB that they are taking their role and expanding it. They can help with the environmental review. They have the experts that the county doesn't have."

Williams also said he felt good that Fillmore County took the lead in requesting the EQB to be the RGU. "I'm hoping the state agencies look a lot more closely at traffic issues that come from sand hauling with trucks, water issues and silica sand particulate health issues," he explained.

These issues will be explored through the EIS, but the EQB will first draft a scoping document that will show which issues need to be addressed in the future EIS.

Fillmore County Zoning Administrator Chris Graves said the actual studies won't occur for a while and possibly push the projects back for at least a year. "The EIS typically takes that long. It is a more involved process," Graves explained.

Having the EQB run the EIS could significantly affect Minnesota Sands ability to move forward on any projects. According to Graves, the EQB can decide whether Minnesota Sands can go forward on any or all the sites, or not. They would also have say on what requirements would need to be met for future conditional use permits.

For opponents of the local frac sand industry, this decision was important. "I'm very pleased that the EQB will be looking at the cumulative impacts. The state has the resources that individual townships and counties do not have. I hope the scope will be as broad as it can be," shared Donna Buckbee from the Rushford area, who lives near the Erickson Quarry that is a proposed frac sand mine.

Graves mentioned that since all the sites are in a condensed area and the public is concerned, he thought it was a good decision for the state to make at this time.

Bakke shared there will be big questions to answer in the weeks and months to come and that any major decisions won't occur locally for quite a while.