It was standing room only in the Harris City Council chambers Monday evening when residents came to a work session to listen to the parties involved in the construction and operation of the Tiller Corporation sand plant, which will process sand for fracking. Some came to listen to how the plant will impact Harris. Others came to vent their frustrations.
Representatives from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which is in the process of taking input on the air quality permit Tiller Corp. has to have to operate the sand processing operation in North Branch, were in attendance. Also fielding questions were representatives from Tiller Corp., St. Croix Valley Railroad, and Interstate Energy Partners – the organization that will mine the sand in Grantsburg, Wis. It is the sand that will be shipped to the plant in North Branch that has raised the ire of some Harris residents.
At the beginning of the meeting, the mood of the residents was that North Branch is going to get the tax revenues from the operation and Harris is going to get the problems. Mike Caron, director of land use affairs for Tiller Corp., spent most of the evening trying to convey Tiller Corp. intends to work with the local communities to alleviate any problems that could arise.
Caron began by explaining how Tiller Corp. selected the North Branch site. The business looked at different locations, mainly in Chisago and Pine counties. This was due to the proximity of the mining sites that produce the type of sand needed for fracking. The North Branch site was chosen because of its proximity to adequate highways. The plant relies on truck traffic to operate. The sand is trucked in, and then sorted. The majority will be shipped out by rail. Some product, not suitable for fracking operations, will be trucked out of the plant. Tiller Corp. went to Chisago County and the City of North Branch to get permits to construct and operate the plant. One of the requirements for the permits was to ensure existing roads were adequate to handle the purposed truck traffic.
Chisago County Engineer Joe Triplett said the county does not want Tiller Corp. to use County Road 30 through downtown Harris as the primary road for the sand fracking operation.
He said that is not the plan of Tiller Corp., according to Caron.
“They said they’d take the freeway to County Road 10 and then take 10 to County Road 30 when the trucks turn south,” Triplett said.
He added, “We don’t want them running down County Road 30 … if it comes to that, we’ll look at whatever steps we need to take to prevent that.”
Once the plant is in operation, it is the intention of the county to do a traffic study, and estimate what additional road improvements would need to be done to protect both the infrastructure and safety of the roads.
“I want to do my own counts and we’re going to get our own impartial information and come up with the best solution to that little corridor,” Triplett said.
If the plant is successful and phase two is put into operation, the truck traffic would increase.
Dodging the permit process?
There were some questions as to whether Tiller Corp. purposely did not request the air quality permit that the MPCA is now processing as a move to dodge the permit process. Caron repeatedly said it was a mistake on Tiller’s part, that the company was under the impression that by applying to the county and city, it had requested the necessary permits, including a conditional use permit. When Tiller Corp. found out additional permits were required, the MPCA was informed. The MPCA was contacted in February, March and April until the processing for the correct permit was put into motion.
Caron said it was not the intention of Tiller Corp. to circumvent any rules or to try to get by without the proper permits.
Although Harris officials were aware of the construction of the plant, a red flag did not arise until the MPCA attended a City Council meeting and informed the council of the numbers of trucks and trains that the plant might use. Chisago County Commissioner Mike Robinson attended a meeting when hauling product to the Sunrise location became heavy. But the council was assured at that time the operation in Sunrise was a temporary and would not continue. Caron also said no more of the product from Grantsburg would be hauled to Sunrise. Only the product that is there will be hauled from Sunrise to the plant.
How much traffic?
Even though the MPCA is looking at an air quality permit, the main topic of the council meeting was traffic – specifically, how the traffic could or should be routed to and from the plant. Caron said when the plant starts operating; it will run 12 hours a day, six days a week. That will equate to 150 tons of sand per hour, which will be hauled in by six trucks every hour. As the market increases, the amount of sand trucked in would likely increase to meet the demand. As the MPCA wants applications for the complete operation, and not piecemealed together, Tiller Corp. is requesting permitting for its maximum operation. This would be operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Caron said that type of operation would not actually be feasible. He noted the plant does not have the capacity to operate at that level, nor does it plan to operate at such a high rate.
Shipping the product
Lee Lautt, a representative from St. Croix Railroad, discussed how the finished product would be shipped out of the plant. Lautt said that the average train would travel 12 miles an hour, as that is what the rails and their equipment is rated for. The maximum tonnage for the horsepower of the engines they use is 25 cars per locomotive, and there would probably be two locomotives per train. The rails would be upgraded and inspected every week. The railroad is inspecting the crossings and would upgrade them as needed.
Caron estimated two trains every other day would be leaving the plant during phase one of the operation.
That number could increase to one or two trains per day during phase two.
Concern about train traffic
Concern about the number of trains blocking roads that are necessary for emergency vehicles was also discussed. Lautt said by federal law, a train cannot block a road for more than ten minutes, whether the train is moving or not. In the event of an emergency, that train could be separated, a process that would take about two minutes. Traffic could then pass the previously blocked intersection.
When questioned as to how many trains would run each day, Lautt indicated he could not give a specific number. The number of trains is determined by the number of orders the railroad gets for product. The railroad picks up the product based on the need in the oil fields. If the orders do not come in, the trains do not run.
Caron said that at the present time, the Grantsburg operation could supply sufficient product to operate in the smaller phase one operation. Should the plant increase to the larger phase two operation, the source of the raw material would have to come from a different source, presumably from the south. So as the plant grows, the traffic through Harris shouldn’t.
As to the perceived necessary improvements to the infrastructure to support the higher traffic volume, Caron noted there is an aggregate tax set by the state that has to be paid to the county. For every ton of product shipped from the plant, 15 cents has to be paid to the county. Caron projected when Tiller Corporation starts operation, the business will ship 1,800 tons per day. The county could use money garnered from the tax on the shipped sand to improve the county roads in Harris.
Caron expressed an interest in being included in the discussions so that Tiller Corp. could help out in any way that it could.
When questioned about the noise from jake brakes being used in the city, Caron said that if the city has a noise ordinance, Tiller Corp. would purchase the necessary signs to enforce no jake brake usage.
One resident had a question about the noise from the plant operation. Caron indicated the noise is not as much as the Tiller Corp. asphalt operation in Scandia.
He added there are houses closer than a half a mile to that plant, and the residents of those homes do not have a problem with the noise.
Environmental Assessment Worksheet
Currently, the City of Harris is in the process of preparing a request for an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW), which would address traffic issues related to the plant.
Caron proposed an offer to the city: If the EAW is done, it will delay beginning operation for an additional six months. This would delay putting 36 full-time union employees to work, and delay any income from a plant that has been sitting idle. The EAW does not guarantee that a traffic study would be done.
If one was completed, the EAW does not guarantee improvements would be done based on the study. Caron offered to hire a third party, qualified to do the traffic study and make recommendations that would be satisfactory to the Chisago County engineer.
The hiring would be with the understanding that the petition for the EAW be withdrawn. There was interest from the remaining residents still at the meeting when the proposal was made to take Tiller Corp. up on its offer. Mayor Diane Miller said with the number of signatures on the petition for the EAW, she did not feel comfortable withdrawing the petition. It was pointed out that all of the facts laid out at Monday’s meeting weren’t known when the petition started.
Miller noted the meeting was a work session and no decision could be acted upon, and that the matter would be discussed at the next council meeting Nov. 19.