"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," Houston County emergency coordinator Kurt Kuhlers told county commissioners on March 11.

Kuhlers was briefing the county board on the dangers of train derailments and oil spills along the county's sole remaining active rail line, which runs along the Mississippi River. He was joined by Mark Marcy of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

With one million barrels of crude oil per day now exiting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, there has been a marked increase in shipments of crude by rail, Kuhlers said. "This is why we're seeing more train cars full of oil products flowing through our county," he noted. "This is a more volatile oil that's coming from these oil fields. There's more natural gas in this oil."

Kuhlers said that 110-car trains of non-pressurized tankers carrying crude are going to be a more common sight, and will continue to pass along the county's eastern edge. Those same cars don't return empty.

"They're also returning north-bound, back to the oil fields with other hazardous materials.... They're hauling chemicals and other materials back," he added.

Remarkably, the tankers only have about a four-year lifespan, Kuhlers said. That's because the materials they carry are corrosive.

If there's good news, it's that 99.97 percent of the cars arrive safely at their destinations, Kuhlers noted. Also, "We're just as much prepared (to handle emergencies) as anywhere in the U.S."

In case of an accident, local fire departments would respond first, to address safety concerns such as evacuations. But while any disaster would be managed at the local level, mutual aid works "like a string of dominoes" from there, Kuhlers stated. Resources from the State of Minnesota, the rail carrier, and other states as well as federal agencies would soon follow. In fact, with agreements already in place between some local fire departments and their Wisconsin counterparts, some of the earliest aid would probably come from La Crosse.

"We're here to support (you)," Marcy confirmed. "If the fire chief determines that 10 engines are needed and 1,000 gallons of foam are needed, Kurt can start that process, and we can help find that through the state emergency operations center."

Initially, "We would be in evacuation mode," Houston County Sheriff Doug Ely said.

"The railroads want to train our first responders," Chief Deputy Scott Yeiter added.

"Do we have a plan?" Commissioner Steve Schuldt asked.

"We have a hazmat plan in place," Kuhlers replied. That includes bringing in outside help to perform specialized cleanup procedures.

Frac sand committee yields public comments

Tuesday's board meeting was well attended, with over two dozen residents on hand. Some spoke about the planned frac sand ordinance study committee, which resulted in arguments among members last week.

Elizabeth Reedy of Money Creek Township and Brian Van Gorp of Yucatan Township spoke first. Reedy said she favors a ban on frac sand mining within Houston County, and challenged the board to begin by placing one in effect first, rather than passing an ordinance which would allow the practice. Van Gorp agreed with Reedy. He also said that the sessions must remain open to the public, and questioned the makeup of the group.

"A couple of the county employees on the committee are known to have a vested interest in allowing (frac) sand mining based on statements made at the prior study group," he stated.

Ken Tschumper of La Crescent Township also spoke about initiating a frac sand mining ban. "The process for prohibiting frac sand mining is exactly the same as for any kind of amendment you make to the zoning ordinance." he said.

"We all recognize this as a controversial issue... I'd encourage you to find a good land-use attorney to help you make some really well thought out findings to justify prohibiting frac sand mining."

Kelley Stanage of Houston Township reminded the board that the Environmental Quality Board will not write model ordinances to help counties through the process, but has provided a "silica sand library" to provide "tools" to local governments. She said that last week's arguments over who should represent the board on the upcoming study group were "very troubling" because Commissioner Justin Zmyewski "has done detailed and thorough research on the topic," as well as attending more of the previous study committee meetings than any other commissioner.

Terry Botcher of Mound Prairie Township, however, chided Zmyewski for insisting on a seat on the panel last week. "It looked more like a bullying session than a meeting to me," he stated.

Later, Commissioner Judy Storlie and Zmyewski traded "bullying" accusations on the subject of who should sit on the study group. Storlie made a motion to have Chairperson Teresa Walter and Commissioner Dana Kjome serve on the committee, and if Kjome chose not to participate, appoint Schuldt. There was no second. Neither was there any vote to change the makeup of the group, which now includes Walter and Zmyewski. In fact, the final makeup of the panel is still in limbo, since two planning commission members have yet to be named.

Walter reported that the first study committee meeting will be on March 24 from 9 to noon.

Finally, Environmental Services director Rick Frank addressed the board on another possible lawsuit over a sand mine. He confirmed that the owner of the Erickson mine (near Rushford) has reapplied for a conditional use permit, and is now seeking to sell non-frac sand from the property. That mine was embroiled in a lawsuit after Minnesota Sands sought a permit to open a frac sand facility during the county's moratorium on new frac sand operations.

Frank said that he was contacting attorney Jay Squires, who represents the county on land-use issues, as well as state officials, seeking legal opinions. The CUP will need to go to the planning commission soon, since failure to address an application within 60 days will result in "an automatic (approval)" he stated.