Lost in the uproar over silica sand mining is a serious threat to Minnesota’s environmental-review procedures with potentially far-reaching implications. And it appears no one in state government or our congressional delegation is taking this threat seriously.
In the historic Mississippi River town of Wabasha, a clever and aggressive Canadian sand company found a way to flout Minnesota’s environmental-review measures. They leased land from a railroad and then claimed exemption from state and local review, using the railroad’s federal right of pre-emption over state and local zoning laws. This longstanding privilege basically says that state and local governments cannot restrict a railroad’s right to operate in interstate commerce.
In a cautionary tale for many communities in our region, this federal exemption was honored in Wabasha. And, the same could happen anywhere a railroad has a large enough rail yard to accommodate tenants and their operations. In this case, a local government was overwhelmed by a well-funded private company.
As background, in December 2012, a Wabasha citizens group asked the Planning Commission to require an Environmental Assessment before granting a permit for a Canadian company’s trans loading (from truck to rail car) facility that would bring 500 sand-hauling truck trips daily through this small river town from Wisconsin over a Mississippi River bridge. These residents felt there was too little information about safety and environmental risks to their community without an assessment to inform the conditions placed on a permit.