It was a tight squeeze into a room rented by Tiller Corporation and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency at the North Branch Area Library Dec. 3.
Around 100 people showed up for the meeting, which was organized to discuss the MPCA air quality permit Tiller has yet to obtain.
Tiller needs that permit in order to operate the frack sand drying plant it has nearly finished building along County Road 30 between North Branch and Harris.
Don Smith, manager of the Air Quality Permits Section for the MPCA, said Tiller began construction of the plant before receiving the proper permit from the agency.
Subsequently, the MPCA ordered Tiller to halt construction until the facility’s plans are thoroughly reviewed by the agency and the public.
“Normally, we issue the permit before construction is allowed to occur,” Smith said. “In this case, the company jumped the gun a little bit and built before they got a permit.”
Smith said Tiller will be fined for its transgression.
The amount of that fine will not be made public until it is imposed.
The MPCA is encouraging county residents to review a draft air quality permit and make comments between now and Dec. 14.
The draft permit can be accessed online at http://tinyurl.com/cammywq.
Comments about the draft permit can be e-mailed to email@example.com.
Explaining the process
Steven Gorg, the environmental engineer assigned to write the air quality permit for the Tiller site, gave the crowd a rundown on what could happen at the plant once it’s operational.
First, he started by giving information about frack sand.
He noted frack sand is used in the petroleum industry.
It is a high-purity, crush-resistant sand comprised of round grains of a specific size.
It is used in hydraulic fracturing to produce petroleum fluids, such as oil, natural gas and gas liquids from rock units that lack adequate pore space for those fluids to flow into a well, according to online information about the industry.
Once its shelf life in the petroleum industry has passed, Gorg said the sand is recycled and used in products like shingles and livestock bedding.
Gorg also explained how the sand is obtained.
“The material is mined at a site through blasting, excavation, crushing and washing of the sand,” he said. Those four components are not taking place at the Tiller facility (in North Branch). Those are taking place elsewhere.”
He noted the Tiller facility in North Branch would be used only for the drying of the sand.
From there, the sand would be transported via truck and railcar to various locations.
Gorg also explained 99 percent of the sand cycling through the Tiller facility would be too large to be respirable (too large to become airborne), and Tiller has installed equipment at its facility control the respirable material.
Mike Caron, director of land use affairs for Tiller Corporation, said trucks and railcars visiting the facility would also be covered to keep as much of the sand as possible in those transport vehicles.
Gorg said the plan is to permit the facility to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The facility is expecting to operate 20 of those 24 hours, with four hours being for maintenance,” he said. “Trucking operations are for 12 hours a day, six days a week, with occasional overnights, as needed.”
He added, “I know transportation is a big question for a lot of folks here. The facility is being permitted to operate 325 trucks per day or 400 rail cars per week.”
However, Caron previously told the Post Review the numbers mentioned by the MPCA are in relation only to the air quality permit, and Tiller could not operate at that level with a facility the size of the one near completion along County Road 30.
Tiller estimates six to eight truckloads of sand would be passing through Harris every hour when the operation is up-and-running, and 15 to 25 railcars per day could be loaded. Caron said once those cars are loaded, one to two trains every other day could be leaving the plant.
If Tiller steps up production in a possible phase two, one to two trains per day could be leaving the plant.
After Gorg finished with his presentation, he, Caron and Smith fielded an array of questions from concerned residents.
One man said he was concerned about the moisture content of the sand—he noted sand that’s too dry could equate to overly dusty conditions near the plant.
Gorg said the plant is required to keep the moisture content of the sand coming into the plant at 2 percent.
He also said visible emissions would be monitored and minimized at the site.
Gorg said Tiller would have an annual requirement to submit certifications that ensure the facility is in compliance with MPCA standards.
The facility would also be required to provide semi-annual reports to keep the MPCA abreast of its compliance history.
The MPCA would also require Tiller to keep monthly and daily operation records on-site.
Another resident asked how Tiller was able to start construction of the facility without receiving the air quality permit.
Caron addressed that question.
“We made an honest mistake,” Caron said, a reply that elicited jeers from the crowd. “But I think it needs to be understood what we’re doing here at this site. We’re drying sand. This site, the material that’s going through this plant, is cleaner than what goes through any asphalt plant in this vicinity.”
Another man asked if workers at the plant would be required to wear breathing apparatuses.
Caron said the workers would not be required to wear the devises at the plant.
Others in the crowd were concerned about how Tiller is supposed to report to the MPCA.
Smith said monitoring of the facility is performed primarily via self-reporting.
“Just by the nature of the air program—and I know this isn’t reassuring to a lot of people—it is a process where the company is responsible for monitoring themselves, reporting those records to us and then those records are looked at when they’re submitted to the PCA,” he said.
However, Smith added the MPCA conducts spot checks at locations from time to time, and anytime the agency receives a complaint about a facility it sends a representative out to the site in question to “go through the whole gamut of records at the site.”
“It’s just not practically possible for us to inspect and be out at every facility across the state with the number of staff we have,” Smith said. “Based on records with other facilities, the self-reporting process works well. If there are complaints raised by the citizens, we will be out to make sure those issues are looked into. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a system that seems to be working well for most of the facilities across the state.”