Associated Press, Published December 18 2012
Wabasha City Council backs frac sand projectWABASHA, Minn. — A proposed rail shipping hub for sand used by the oil and natural gas industries took a major step forward when the Wabasha City Council rejected a request to commission a study on the environmental risks that the sand and hundreds of trucks a day would bring to the picturesque Mississippi River town.
Calgary, Alberta-based Superior Sand Systems Inc. plans to build a storage and loading facility along the Canadian Pacific tracks, from which silica sand mined in Wisconsin would be shipped to North Dakota and Texas for use in the oil and gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing. The facility could take in 200 to 300 truckloads of sand a day and run seven days a week. The company hopes to begin operating as early as Thursday.
Over 150 citizens petitioned for the city to order a review called an environmental assessment worksheet, citing health, traffic and safety concerns. But the council voted 5-1 against ordering the review Monday night after Superior Sands officials said federal railroad law trumps the state law under which the citizens filed their petition.
Southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin have extensive deposits of highly pure silica sand, with round grains of the ideal size and hardness for use in hydraulic fracturing. The sand is forced down wells along with water and chemicals to fracture underground rocks. The sand holds the cracks open, allowing the oil and gas to flow out. Frac sand mining is regulated mainly by a patchwork of local ordinances, zoning laws and moratoriums in the two states.
Opponents object to the heavy truck traffic the mines, processing and shipping facilities generate, and they say not enough is known about the health risks of silica dust.
Craig Falkum, a leader of Friends of Wabasha, told the council he believes the city of 2,500 is ill-equipped to regulate frac sand on its own and urged a review by experienced professionals who could help the city determine the operation's risks, Minnesota Public Radio reported.
"There are too many residences in the nearby area, as well as prominent industry and a clinic and a hospital to allow this operation to proceed without a thorough investigation," Falkum said.
Paul van Eijl, a lands acquisitions manager with Superior Sand, said the company is working with Wabasha's planning board to address many of the residents' concerns through the city's standard permitting process. But he said the city lacked authority to order the environmental review, citing a federal law that prohibits states from regulating railroads.
Council member Catherine Gallenberger said ordering the review would have cost too much and risked a legal battle.
"How much are we willing to spend?" Gallenberger said. "And where is that money going to come from? Does that mean we have to raise the taxes again next year to the degree we raised them this year so we can pay for this possible fight that we may have? Or should we just continue on the course that we have set in our policies, which hopefully, maybe we're going be wrong, but hopefully will protect us."
Superior Sands has one frac sand mine across the river from Wabasha in Wisconsin, and company official D'Arcy Duquette told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis it plans to seek approval for two more mines at sites in that county. The Wabasha facility will employ 18 people at full production, not counting trucking jobs, said Duquette, a former Canadian Pacific executive.
Duquette also said the Wabasha facility will have enough capacity — 1.2 million tons a year — for Superior Sands to consider mining in Minnesota.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.