Minnesota regulators agreed Wednesday to delay action on a request to lift environmental review requirements for a would-be mining company with claims to thousands of acres in southern Minnesota.
Minnesota Sands asked the Environmental Quality Board to terminate the board’s 2013 order requiring the company to complete a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement before moving ahead on proposed mines on about 615 acres in Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties.
The company, which has sued to overturn Winona County’s frac mining ban, now says its plans are limited to one 50-acre mine in Fillmore County because of legal and market conditions that have made the other locations unfeasible.
Minnesota law requires an EIS, which can take more than a year to complete, for a frac sand mine or group of linked mines of more than 160 acres. Smaller projects require only an Environmental Assessment worksheet.
At issue is whether Minnesota Sands has grander plans than the single Fillmore County site.
President Richard Frick of Dakota, Minn., told the EQB he has terminated leases for lands in Houston County and cannot proceed in Winona County because of the ban.
“As far as I’m concerned them is off the table,” Frick said. “It might never happen.”
But in court documents Frick claims to have leases on more than 3,500 acres with frac sand deposits that could be worth more than $6 billion at current market prices.
“The plans are clear and became clear in the lawsuit,” said Jay Squires, the attorney representing Winona County. “The intention hasn’t changed.”
Squires argued that if Frick wants to free himself from the EIS requirements, he should terminate his other leases.
Minnesota Sands attorney Bill Weimer said the business plan has changed.
“Mr. Frick’s statement is all based on ‘ifs,’” he said. “Right now he cannot mine in Winona County.… He’s got to look in a different direction.”
Frick disavowed statements in an affidavit signed July 24 in which he said if the ban is overturned he would pursue mining his Winona County properties "as soon as practicable" after the permitting process.
“I’ve never said that,” he told the board. “I don’t talk to anybody. That might have been somebody else involved but that was not me. I’ve never said that.”
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.
The EQB staff has recommended the board accept Frick’s proposal and believes there is only one project, not a “phased action.”
Under its reading of the rules, “leases are not projects,” planning director Erik Cedarleaf Dahl told the board.
However, Dahl said, there is a three-year “look back" provision, so that if Minnesota Sands moves forward with any additional projects that in combination with the Fillmore County exceed the 160-acre threshold it would trigger a mandatory EIS.
The board voted unanimously to table the request until March, citing concerns that a decision could affect the court case.