An environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) ordered for a proposed frac sand mine near Rushford was a debated by Houston County commissioners for over an hour on Oct. 9.

The EAW, which could well set the stage for future frac sand mines within the county, was ordered by commissioners on Aug. 7.

The document is now in draft form, having been drawn up by G-Cubed Engineering (formerly GGG, Inc.), the same company, which completed the mine operations plan for Minnesota Sands, LLC earlier this year.

Minnesota Sands, LLC and landowner Tracie Erickson are currently suing Houston County over restrictions placed on the conversion of the existing aggregate sand mine to an industrial-scale frac sand facility.

Residents representing Houston County Protectors, a group of concerned citizens, cried foul over letting G-Cubed write the EAW.

Dr. Chad Oness of rural Houston told the board that the document should have been prepared by an "objective third party," rather than a company employed by Minnesota Sands.

"We're going to be held morally and ethically accountable," Oness said. He added that "pimping the land out to profiteers" could result in much more environmental damage than a few torn up roads.

"The decisions we make about this issue are not going to be able to be undone," Oness said. "When you take down our bluffs - you cannot put a bluff back."

Environmental Services Director Rick Frank said that the board did not dictate who would prepare the EAW.

"That is up to the applicant," he stated. Frank added that the county could hire a third party to review the document once it is completed, sent to various agencies and offered for public comment. That comment/review period typically lasts 30 days, he said.

Resident Steve Hartwick objected, "If the process was flawed, the results are going to be flawed. The fox is designing the henhouse."

Protector member Donna Buckbee said that allowing the industry to testify for itself would inevitably lead to inaccuracies.

"My assumption was that whoever is going to conduct the EAW is not going to be directly affiliated with the mining company," Chairman Jack Miller stated.

Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan was asked to read the state statute, "To ensure that adequate information is included in the environmental review, the county board may hire a consultant to prepare an EAW or EIS (environmental impact statement), and the county may charge necessary direct costs to the project proposer."

"What I hear is that we should have probably been more involved in who did this," Miller concluded. That sparked a lively debate over how to proceed.

Frank and Scanlan noted that previous EAW documents filed in Houston County, such as for feedlot expansions, have been completed by applicants.

Those were all opened up for public comment and review by state and local agencies before permits were issued. They repeated that a third party should come on board to review the document only after the EAW is submitted.

"I have to disagree," Miller said. "I think that the contentiousness of this situation warrants as much openness an unbiased opinion as we can muster. There's a trust factor here that has been completely obliterated... an analogy would be my wife coming in here and saying, 'Jack's doing a great job.'"

"Why didn't we hire an outside firm to begin with?" Commissioner Teresa Walter asked.

"It's not up to us to hire," Scanlan said. Several board members did not agree.

"We would have been better off right from the beginning to bring in that third party to do the whole thing," Walter said.

Commissioner Justin Zmyewski concurred, "I understand G-Cubed's involvement for supplying the information on what they plan to do. They've started their EAW, but at this juncture, I would like to have another company come in and verify what they're saying. I've got issues with some of the things they've said before. I do not trust them.

"I would like to have someone else come in and say whether the environmental impacts that the mining company is claiming are there or aren't there before we reach the comment period. We did request a third party (on Aug. 7), now we need another set of eyes.

"Someone who is not involved should prepare the document. Otherwise, it's kind of like committing a crime and then getting to write your own sentence. Right now, it's a biased document."

Walter made a motion to seek the names of third-party consultants, so that one can be brought on board to evaluate the data from G-Cubed before the final document is submitted. It passed by unanimous vote.

The meaning of the motion, including the extent of that evaluation brought up more questions, and even Auditor Char Meiners asked that the motion be re-stated for the record.

Resident Mike Fields said that G-Cubed should not be the only party to have the property surveyed for plants, animals and cultural remains.

He added that an unbiased consultant should do more than review G-Cubed's assertions and "check for spelling errors."

"That would then make G-Cubed the official word on what's going on," Fields added.

Zmyewski agreed, adding that an unbiased consultant should be empowered to bring in their own experts in to walk the land and check the facts.

"They've done their part of the EAW, and now it's time for us to bring in a third party," he concluded.