The mining of silica (or frac) sand at the Griffin quarry 1 mile north of Chatfield created controversy at township meetings last week. From top, it was a standing room only crowd at the Elmira meeting Nov. 1; middle row left, Griffin showed this diagram of the geology of the hill to be mined; middle row right, Paul Jewison, a neighbor to the mine, spoke of concerns; bottom row left, Bill Sullivan, left, and Vern Crowson of the Pilot Mound Township Board take notes at the Orion meeting since there's an application in their township; and bottom row right, Al Zeccardi, another neighbor to the mine spoke at both meetings and is seen here at Orion. (Chatfield News photos by Lisa Brainard)
The mining of silica (or frac) sand at the Griffin quarry 1 mile north of Chatfield created controversy at township meetings last week. From top, it was a standing room only crowd at the Elmira meeting Nov. 1; middle row left, Griffin showed this diagram of the geology of the hill to be mined; middle row right, Paul Jewison, a neighbor to the mine, spoke of concerns; bottom row left, Bill Sullivan, left, and Vern Crowson of the Pilot Mound Township Board take notes at the Orion meeting since there's an application in their township; and bottom row right, Al Zeccardi, another neighbor to the mine spoke at both meetings and is seen here at Orion. (Chatfield News photos by Lisa Brainard)
A sand mine expansion 1 mile north of Chatfield on Highway 52, including the mining of silica sand, that is proposed by Griffin Construction of Chatfield and White Diamond Frac Sand of Richardson, Texas, needs to have further environmental evaluation and analysis.

The Orion Township Board on Nov. 2 followed the lead of the Elmira Township Board on Nov. 1 when it, too, voted that an environmental impact study (EIS) must be completed. Then it will be reviewed to board satisfaction before a rezoning of the property and a conditional use permit to allow mining would be approved.

Silica sand has found a new market with a boom in the natural gas and oil markets, where it is used with added chemicals and water for "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking" to open spaces to retrieve hard-to-extract gas and oil.

Silica sand has been classified as a carcinogen by health regulatory agencies.

Permitting process

Roger Ihrke, director of the Township Cooperation Planning Association (TCPA) in Rochester, which handles zoning issues for the majority of Olmsted County townships, explained Griffin needed to complete an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) for the project since it was going to be over 40 acres.

The initial sand quarry was first approved in 1995 and in 2005 was expanded. The existing area covers 39.55 acres. If the expansion were approved it would increase to a total of 121.95 acres, with the purchase of Neal Gartner property dependent upon permit approvals.

The unanimous vote by both township boards means that a more stringent environmental impact study (EIS) will need to be completed by Griffin Construction and White Diamond Frac Sand. Questions raised by township residents will almost certainly end up on the list the township boards eventually present to Geoff Griffin and his GGG surveying and engineering company.

Ihrke also explained a notification of intent for the Griffin mine had been published in the state Environmental Quality Board's Monitor publication and in the Chatfield News in mid-September, offering a 30-day comment period ending Oct. 19. Just four of around 20 agencies the notice was sent to responded: The Minnesota DNR (Department of Natural Resources), Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) and the Olmsted County Environmental Resources Agency.

Olmsted Commissioner Matt Flynn, who sits on the latter board, said at the Elmira meeting that Griffin never mentioned the product would be used for frac mining, although he said fellow Commissioner Judy Ohly had asked him. Griffin responded at that same meeting that wording in the permit said the sand would be used for natural gas and oil service.

At the Orion meeting the next evening, when neither Griffin nor Flynn was present, Ihrke said he checked with an administrator handling that meeting, who said the information was given in the permit and in slides.

Ihrke continued explaining that concerns from the agencies to the initial permit notice - which were then included in the EAW - focused on the depth of the mine, the plant cover types that were there before and would be replaced after mining, erosion, wetlands, neighboring wells, dewatering, odor, noise, traffic, best management practices and air quality.

He said the four criteria agencies use in looking at a permit are: the type and extent of reversibility of environmental effects; cumulative effects; the extent of planned mitigation; and environmental effects anticipated and controlled.

Silica sand

At the Orion meeting, Ihrke said that in the EAW and in Griffin's presentation to the Olmsted County Environmental Resources Agency, DNR officials had stated the area of the Griffin mine was one of the few areas in Olmsted County that had the silica sand.

He continued relating the geology of the mine, with a small layer of topsoil, then a large layer of limestone, most of which is used as fill. Then there's between 10 to 15 ft. of silica sand and below that 40 to 50 ft. of bluff sand. Griffin had shown a hand drawn photo of this same layout at the Elmira meeting he attended.

"That's (the bluff sand) about 85 percent of the operation," said Ihrke, "It's used for dairy bedding."

He also said the silica already mined has been sold by the Griffins mainly as fill - and added, "They found a market for it and would like to sell it."

Ihrke then addressed a proposed washing operation for the sand mine, saying it would allow a clean product to be sold, rather than a product that would include debris. Currently, Griffin just has a permit to load it and haul it away.

Later in the meeting, Ihrke noted the permit said the mine would be done in 20-acre increments. Only that much land would be open at a time. "As he removes topsoil from the next 20 acres he takes the topsoil and puts it (on the area just mined.)"

That stipulation is in effect for the mine now. Some audience members stated they had never seen any areas reclaimed at the mine during its current operation.

There is currently a $10,000 bond by Griffin in both townships, in case it would need to be used. Audience remarks indicated many members did not think that amount bond was sufficient for any potential damages caused.

Ihrke also said Griffin would need to sell all the ag/dairy sand before moving on to the next silica/frac sand section. He also pointed out he was not there to defend Griffin in his absence.

As to the future of the property after mining, Ihrke said he was just speculating - nothing had been stated to this effect by Griffin - but he figured it might become a commercial piece of property since it's right along Highway 52.

Ihrke also stated they would want to make sure all sand and gravel is mined out before any development would take place. He cited that as an issue in the Twin Cities where development occurred over the sand and gravel resources, which now must be trucked in.

Concerns; moratorium?

Addressing the fact that only four of 20 agencies responded to the initial notice of the sand mine expansion, Kit Johnston of the Orion Planning Commission stated, "Sixteen agencies did not respond? That really riles me up. It's what I call gutless."

He also asked if anyone had done a walk-through on the property. No one had walked it.

Johnston then asked Ihrke about placing a moratorium on the silica sand mining, as Goodhue and Wabasha counties had done and which Winona County is considering.

Ihrke explained the township could put a moratorium in place, but first the board would need to respond one way or the other to the EAW by its deadline of Nov. 17. He said the board could enact one and not allow the rezoning to allow mining.

The issue at both township meetings had involved three parts: review of the EAW, rezoning the land from ag use to sand mining and then application for a conditional use permit (CUP), to allow the mining. A moratorium can only be placed on a zoning issue to restrict it.

If a response by the Orion Board had said the EAW was sufficient, it would have put the issue in front of the Orion Planning Commission. At that point a moratorium could have been put in place.

Johnston asked if an EIS equaled a moratorium? Ihrke replied, no, that "an EIS allows further digging into questions."

In talking to the state's Environmental Quality Board earlier that same day, Ihrke said, "There's never been an EIS done on a sand or gravel operation. In most cases it would kill it. An EIS is in the neighborhood of $100,000 to do. I conjecture... I don't see an EIS being done here... I would see a withdrawal of the application.

"Then if he (Griffin) changes it in some way, shape or form - such as removing the wash area - it would need another EAW because it's a new application. Again, you'd look at it and say, 'Does this answer environmental questions?'

Ihrke then said if Griffin decided to do an EIS it could take a year to a year and a half, although at the Elmira board meeting Griffin had answered that question and said it would take around 120 days.

"Just to do the scope of what you're looking for would take 120 days. You as a board need to determine (what you're looking for.)"

Johnston said he hoped to work with other counties to come up with a thorough list of issues to address in an EIS.