On Nov. 20, Houston County commissioners voted to contract with Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. (SEH) for an independent review of a controversial environmental assessment worksheet (EAW).

The EAW is required for the conversion of an existing sand mine to an industrial frac sand production.

Located near Rushford, the Erickson Quarry has been a bone of contention ever since commissioners discovered that mining company Minnesota Sands planned to re-open the property to produce frac sand in spite of a countywide moratorium on new frac sand mines.

For its part, Minnesota Sands has held that the existing conditional use permit (CUP) should allow their company to open the mine for vastly enlarged production.

Minnesota Sands and mine owner Tracie Erickson are currently suing Houston County over several restrictions placed on the mine operation.

Environmental Services director Rick Frank told the board that he had contacted several potential providers in order to find someone to review the EAW, which he said is currently in a "rough draft" stage.

Finding expertise without a potential conflict of interest was difficult, he added.

"When we were interviewing these (companies), we were trying to come up with the best one that didn't have any conflict with potential frac sand producers in Houston County. They were asked point blank what their involvement was in the frac sand industry."

St. Paul consultant SEH is knowledgeable about the frac sand industry and has worked for sand companies in Wisconsin, Frank said.

"But at this point, they assured us they do not have any connection with frac sand in Minnesota," he added.

A proposal from SEH agreed with Frank's assessment. As the RGU (responsible governmental unit), Houston County can be expected to spend between $500 and $12,500 in administration and review for a typical EAW, the document states.

For a frac sand mine, those costs grow to between $8,000 and $15,000.

A listing of typical tasks and costs for a third-party review produced an estimated cost of $13,508 for this proposed EAW.

"While our experience in frac sand can be perceived as a potential conflict, it is also our strength," the proposal states.

"Our understanding of the process and environmental impacts associated with frac sand mining is precisely what qualifies us to provide a professional technical review on your behalf."

The company offered to recuse itself from the project if any of its frac sand clients were to consider operations in Houston County.

"It's nice that they don't have any ties to any mining in the state right now," Commissioner Tom Bjerke said.

He noted that SEH worked on the Justice Center, as well as the regional PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) study on behalf of the county.

"I feel comfortable with SEH as a third-party to review the EAW, so I make a motion that we contract with them," Bjerke said. The vote to proceed was unanimous.

On a related note, Frank said that Houston County's Frac Sand Study Committee may have a sample ordinance ready for commissioners to act on by the first of the year.

The first draft is complete, although several key details are still open for debate.

The recommendation is to divide mines into commercial and industrial with separate rules for each.

Future EAW expenses would be borne solely by applicants, not the county.

Limits on the total number of industrial mines in operation at any one time are also being considered.

"It's a work in progress," Frank said. "We're meeting once a week, three hours per meeting."

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski stated later in the meeting that frac sand is also becoming an issue in northeastern Iowa and that hundreds of trucks per day could potentially pass through Houston County from Iowa to either St. Charles or Winona on state routes "right through our towns."

Traffic will probably become an issue regardless of where mines are located, he noted.

Zmyewski made a motion that the board "give direction" to the frac sand committee on a few issues.

First, that no water will be used to process frac sand within Houston County, secondly, that no chemical flocculants will be used, and mining will not be allowed to go down to the water table.

"I'd be in favor of that," Chairman Jack Miller said. "With the potential issues, why should we take the risk? These other issues could potentially come back in 20 years."

The motion passed by unanimous vote.