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Minnesota frac sand company seeks eased environmental restrictions for Fillmore County mine

A sand mining company with rights to thousands of acres in southeast Minnesota is asking state regulators to lift environmental review requirements.

The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board ruled in 2013 that Minnesota Sands must complete a comprehensive environmental impact study before moving ahead on proposed frac sand mines on about 615 acres in Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties that the board determined were linked and would have cumulative environmental impacts on the same geographic area.

Minnesota Sands, which is suing to overturn Winona County’s frac mining ban, now says its plans are limited to a 50-acre mine in Fillmore County and is asking the EQB to consider that a stand-alone project.

The 14-member board is scheduled to consider the request Wednesday to terminate a lengthy multi-site environmental impact statement in favor of a less detailed environmental assessment of the single site. EQB staff are recommending approval.

Johanna Rupprecht is a policy organizer with the Land Stewardship Project, which has fought the industry in southeast Minnesota. She says Minnesota Sands is seeking to skirt the rules and if the request is granted would be able to pursue piecemeal approval of its project, requesting permits for each site, “so that the full impacts of the whole operation are never studied or understood.”


In its court filings, Minnesota Sands claims to have leases on more than 3,700 acres of land with frac sand deposits that could be worth more than $6 billion at current market prices.

State law requires an Environmental Assessment Worksheet be completed for any silica sand project over 20 acres and a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement, which can take more than a year, for projects of more than 160 acres.

Will Seuffert, executive director of the EQB, said the board would evaluate any future proposals from Minnesota Sands as possible “phased actions” that could trigger an EIS if the total size exceeds 160 acres.

The 'smell test'

Minnesota Sands contracted with the EQB to perform the environmental study, which would have been the first time the agency carried out an EIS for a silica sand project. Last year the board suspended work after saying in three years it had yet to receive any information from the company.

“We never received any information about the project — about the sites, where they were located, what the mine plan was,” Seuffert said. “We had nothing to study.”

In June, Minnesota Sands asked the EQB to close out the review, saying its current mining plan is limited to a single 56-acre site west of Rushford. In a letter to the board, company president Richard Frick said market conditions no longer support mining in Houston County and that the Winona County ban, adopted in November, has “rendered useless” its mining leases and a proposed rail loading site.

Minnesota Sands sued the county in April claiming the ordinance violates its constitutional rights by singling out sand used for industrial purposes while permitting sand to be mined for construction uses.

The county has sought to dismiss the case, arguing Minnesota Sands does not have any inherent right to mine its land. Even if the ordinance were overturned, the county says, the company would still need a conditional use permit, which “may be denied for reasons relating to public health, safety and general welfare.”

Rupprecht notes that Minnesota Sands is asking the EQB to believe it has no plans to mine in Winona County even as it is suing for the right to mine there and portraying itself as a company “with massive, multi-county interests.”

“It doesn’t pass any kind of smell test,” Rupprecht said.

It’s not clear how Minnesota Sands plans to process or transport sand from the Fillmore County site. According to court documents, its business plan involves a 304-acre site along the Canadian Pacific rail line in Winona County that cannot be used for industrial sand under the current ordinance.

Frick did not respond to requests for comment. He is scheduled to testify before the board Wednesday.

On Tuesday the company removed images and content from its website touting the quality and quantity of its sand and providing background on its legal case against the county. The site now contains a two-sentence description of the company with contact information for a Twin Cities public relations firm.

Consultant Mike Zipko said in an email the company is “making some changes to the content on its website.”

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Students with disabilities, Gundersen staffers show each other the way

Dr. Scott Rathgaber is CEO of Gundersen Health System. Jacob Anderson is a fairly new intern just out of high school. But dollars to doughnuts, Anderson probably could rescue Rathgaber if the CEO got lost in Gundersen’s labyrinthine hallways.

Scott Rathgaber

Anderson has a keen sense of direction and has proved to be a quick study during just a few weeks as an intern in the security office of the hospital at 1900 South Ave. in La Crosse, his mentors say.

The smiling redhead is one of eight students in Gundersen’s first wave of interns through Project Search, a national program founded at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996 that gives students with developmental and intellectual disabilities training so they will be able to land jobs.

Rathgaber, no slouch himself — having won RSVP’s “Who Will Be Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” fundraising contest with partner Asher Mask of Spence Elementary School in April — said Gundersen employees are gleaning as much from the interns as the students are learning from staffers.

“They bring something to us,” Rathgaber said Tuesday during a program at which the interns were introduced before they demonstrated their developing skills.

“They have a value in bringing their energy and excitement to learn. … We are imparting skills, but we get back, too,” he said.

Gundersen’s participation in Project Search helps fulfill its mission of improving the community’s health, the CEO said.

“The goal is to have them graduate with skills to obtain and retain a job,” Rathgaber said. “Jobs and education are a part of health.”

At Gundersen, interns receive classroom instruction as well as training in the departments.

Laura Anderson

Laura Anderson, who is not related to Jacob and is in her 22nd year as a special education teacher in the Holmen School District, is the classroom instructor for the interns. Two skills trainers help her, and they all check in with the students’ Gundersen mentors on skills development.

“We provide instruction in all aspects of vocational education,” Laura said. “We teach the soft skills, such as watching other people” to learn.

“We observe, offer additional training and suggestions for improvement as needed, and accommodations as may be needed,” said Laura, who is stationed at Gundersen and is the primary contact between the interns and hospital department staffers.

Technically a graduate of Holmen High School but participating in Project Search as an extended learning opportunity, Jacob is one of five Holmen interns, while the others are from La Crosse, Onalaska and Independence school districts.

“Jacob’s really good at way-finding,” said KJ Blanton, Gundersen’s security supervisor.

Echoing that assessment were Laura, who said Jacob has a “phenomenal memory,” and Jon Speltz, the security officer who is one of Jacob’s mentors.

“Jacob is like a sponge. He knows the building very well, and he works independently very well,” Speltz said.

Those traits come in handy as Jacob goes about his duly appointed rounds checking fire extinguishers to make sure they are in proper working order, accompanying Speltz to make bank deposits, patrolling parking lots for violators and logging items in to the lost-and-found system.

Tuesday morning, he was logging in the hundred dollar bill somebody had found and turned in instead of yielding to what must have been a temptation to pocket. Nearby sat a ball of keys and fobs that Speltz estimated contains 75 to 100 keys.

For his part, Jacob wonders how so many people can lose their keys in the hospital — not to mention how they got home. Equally puzzling is the baby stroller security staffers found, although Speltz noted that it wasn’t holding a lost baby.

Asked what his favorite part of the job is, the Jacob grinned as he responded, “Writing tickets.” (Be careful where you park, Dr. Rathgaber, because your supervisor will be notified if you get a ticket.)

Jacob also participated in Gundersen’s “Stop the Bleed” program, learning how to apply a tourniquet and bandage a wound in case he happens upon an emergency situation.

“We trust him,” Speltz said. “He not only learns from us, but he’s taught us a lot about being grateful for what we have.”

Laura praised Gundersen staffers for their nurturing attitudes, adding, “These guys (in security) are over the top.”

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

Jacob Anderson works in the security office at Gundersen Health System. Anderson, a Holmen High School graduate whose intern duties at Gundersen include checking and maintaining fire extinguishers, logging lost-and-found items, especially likes writing tickets for parking lot violators, he said mischievously.

The interns rotate among other departments such as pharmacy and laundry during the nine-month program and are trained just as if they were new hires at Gundersen.

Kelsey Stoos, who also is from Holmen and is working a stint as a technician in the hospital’s in-patient pharmacy, said she likes the technological aspect best.

Stoos demonstrated how she logs a patient’s prescription into a computer, then moved to the next room where she located it on a large carousel that stores virtually every medication the hospital might need. She retrieved the medication and double-checked it before a pharmacist also checked it, as is done for all technicians.

Stoos said she especially likes compounding, which involves mixing ingredients for a medication that may not be available from a manufacturer or one that is in pill form but needs to be turned into powder for a drink.

“She catches on very quickly,” said Miranda Peek, clinical manager for the pharmacy support system.

“The interns really have the same work ethic as our employees and make the same adjustments as new employees,” Peek said.

Rathgaber described Project Search as “a partnership, because we couldn’t do it alone.” Collaboration with the Holmen School District, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is the key to success, said Rathgaber.

The only drawback is that the hospital has so many departments that also want interns after seeing their value, said Rathgaber, encouraging expansion.

As for Jacob, he has experienced a sea change between his freshman year in high school, when he didn’t talk to anybody, and last year, when he helped train other students, Laura said.

Jacob, who initially balked at even being involved in Project Search and then second-guessed himself after signing up, now wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s the best thing I could have done for my life,” he said.

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Boaters: Don't change layout of Isle la Plume marina in La Crosse

While users of La Crosse’s Isle la Plume marina hope to see the harbor’s Styrofoam floats replaced, they also said Tuesday they have serious concerns about city plans to change the layout of the former La Crosse Municipal Harbor.

The boaters aired their thoughts Tuesday at a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources public input session on the city’s permit application. If approved by the DNR, plans call for the city to reconfigure the docks formerly operated by La Crosse Municipal Harbor Inc. owner Steve Mills, moving access points to the east and north shores and changing the entrance from the parking area.

Steve Mills

Mills ran the marina for nearly 40 years before the city moved to evict him last year, accusing Mills of defaulting on the terms of his lease by failing to make corrections to the docks required by the DNR, including replacing the Styrofoam floats with approved materials. The eviction process is ongoing after Mills filed for Chapter 11 protection, sending the case to bankruptcy court; however, a judge ruled in May that the company cannot assume a new lease for the city’s harbor while it is in bankruptcy.

With the change in operation and the required repairs, the parks department looked at the circumstances as an opportunity to start with a blank slate to build something with greater accessibility and other options, according to parks, recreation and forestry superintendent Jay Odegaard.

“It was our belief that the coming in from the other side would have a less vertical descent from the parking area to the water itself,” Odegaard said. “It’s also the intent to open up the peninsula area to possible uses in the future.”

The city plans to replace the Styrofoam with the Hewitt plastic tub floats used in the city-operated Veterans Point Marina off of West Copeland Park.

“We’re very happy with it, and also the users of those facilities are also very happy with it,” Odegaard said.

However, the La Crosse Boat Harbor Neighborhood is concerned that the proposal would have unforeseen environmental impacts, possibly disturbing the old landfill which may overlap the harbor and causing bank erosion on the east side, said spokesperson Dennis Smalley.

“Moving the parking lot to the east side where La Crosse Harbor Service’s shop is may cause some bank erosion with water run-off, especially if it is paved,” Smalley said. “The water run-off could negatively impact the fish, waterfowl and other animals in the harbor.”

The layout maneuverability was another concern, with Smalley pointing out the design for one of the docks changes its placement and could interfere with the public boat landing and take away space used as a staging area for boats and make it difficult to put in houseboats.

“There isn’t sufficient room to get the houseboats backed up enough to allow a turnaround area to get the boat’s bow headed west to a slip or out of the marina,” he said.

Smalley also raised concerns about the removal of trees and vegetation along the north and east shores to build four new gangway access piers, which he said would hurt the natural beauty of the area.

The city has also received information that the 40-foot slips in its submitted proposal would be too short, as multiple current slipholders require 52-foot slips.

“That’s something we’re going to try to work with (DNR water management specialist Ryan) Pappas on to ensure we have a facility to take care of the current slipholders for many years to come,” Odegaard said.

The parks department is also exploring options for a second permit, which would possibly utilize more of the existing structure.

“There is an idea to try and utilize more of the ... design that’s currently there,” Odegaard said. “Depending upon what happens with the frames, depending on what happens with the current assets that are down there that may be a possibility.”

However, the future of the assets associated with La Crosse Municipal Harbor Inc. are unclear following Mills’ bankruptcy.

Odegaard explained that the parks department expedited the permit process to try and prepare for getting work done in the winter.

“It’s been our experience that building docks on the ice in the wintertime is not only less expensive, but also less intrusive to the users,” Odegaard said. “That’s really what our goal is: We don’t want to have a negative impact on the boating community down there. We want to make sure this gets done.”

When considering whether to grant the city its permit, the DNR will consider whether the structure obstructs navigation, reduces effective flood flow and is detrimental to public interest, Pappas said.

If approved, the city would send the project out to public bid with the hopes of completing work by May 1, 2018.

People have until Oct. 27 to submit their comments to Pappas at 3550 Mormon Coulee Road, La Crosse WI 54601; or online by clicking here.