Friday, June 13, 2014 | NEWS
SSS decision on North Branch frac project coming soon
CEO of SSS says the company is prepared to re-route its trucks
Gary King | Editor
NORTH BRANCH, Minn. - A decision by Superior Silica Sands as to whether or not it will resurrect efforts to pursue construction of a frac sand trans-loading station in North Branch will likely be made within 30 days.
SSS CEO/President Rick Shearer said Thursday his company is, in effect, coming back to the table with the City of North Branch after stepping away from the project earlier this month.
He said his company withdrew its project proposal due to bad publicity generated by an organized protest group consisting of some Taylors Falls citizens. The group, along with City of Taylors Falls mayor and council members, expressed concerns about increased traffic of trucks hauling frac sand back and forth between the company’s Barron County, Wis. plants and the proposed North Branch facility.
The citizen group gathered more than 3,000 signatures via an online petition opposing the project.
Since then, North Branch officials favoring the project, including Mayor Ron Lindquist - citing potential tax windfalls and jobs - have been working to bring SSS back to the table and asked SSS what the city could do to make it work, according to Shearer.
“We said, ‘OK, you kind of know where we are on this process - if you can work things out with the people of Taylors Falls and the people are supportive, we would consider coming back into the program," Shearer said.
Taylors Falls Mayor Mike Buchite recently confirmed that North Branch officials met with him and other Taylors Falls council members to discuss the issue. He said Taylors Falls reiterated concerns over traffic - a steady stream of frac sand trucks that would present a hazard and hurt the city's summer tourism economy.
“They said, “We are trying to deal with your concerns … and they didn’t ask for anything from us,’” Buchite said.
Shearer said the public concerns expressed by those in opposition to the SSS proposal - primarily related to traffic - were based more on emotion than fact, but he wanted to be sensitive to those concerns.
“We can re-route trucks during the summer months - we could change hours of operation and bring trucks in overnight - we want to be as cooperative and least disruptive as possible, but we got a feeling from the town (Taylors Falls) that this is still a problem, with the activists in particular.”
Buchite said his council is opposed to the night option as half it the city's Main Street is residential and is curious as to where traffic would be re-routed.
In a project fact sheet issued by SSS on June 9, the company outlines Phase I of their proposed project, stating it would pay for the City of North Branch to build a truck bypass with construction in 2015. It would pay for city road maintenance expense due to excess wear and they would make an annual contribution to a road maintenance reserve fund. It does not mention Taylors Falls.
Aside from traffic, concerns over potential health hazards from breathing in the the smallest of particles from frac sand, a known carcinogen, is a concern that has surfaced. Health experts say government standards require monitoring only total particles in the air, not specifically crystalline silica.
Shearer claims his company is well aware of such concerns and says his company meets all health-related standards under the law. A story published on SSS’s website (superiorsilicasand.com) states Wisconsin sand mining is 10 times cleaner than required under federal regulations, based on Department of Natural Resources data.
Asked whether stronger regulations by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency played a factor in SSS’s decision to withdraw the North Branch proposal, Shearer responded, “No - to us it was more driven by public sentiment. We have every right to drive through Taylors Falls - but we want to be supportive - we're all about that as a company - It’s really just an issue of trying to do the right thing - yet still find a way to move forward with our business.”
Concern over sand escaping from trucks as it’s being transported and causing a potential airborne hazard has been part of the discussion, also.
“Sand being hauled is fully contained,” he said. “They are thinking of dump trucks - this is dried, finished sand - the only way they can keep it dry is in pneumatic trucks.”
“On all of these issues we need to separate emotion and facts,” Shearer said. “We can mine, process and transport it (sand) safely and responsibly.”
Shearer confirmed that his company will entertain representatives of the City of North Branch, including the mayor and administrator, this coming Monday, June 16, at one of the company’s plants in Barron County.
“I believe they want to see our facilities and understand how we operate,” he said. “They are state of the art - we work in a safe and health conscious manner.”
The meeting will include discussion on the proposed North Branch project.
“Frankly, we have to see where that goes,” Shearer said. “We are considering it but we are looking at other options, also - such as using the BNSF railroad. We’ll see how things unfold.”
A decision one way or the other, Shearer stated, would need to made quickly. His company is expanding operations at Barron with a new plant to be operational by early October and the company will need to have made a decision on shipping well before then, especially if silos are to be built as part of a trans-loading station at North Branch.
Shearer said SSS is currently the fourth-largest frac sand producer in the industry with plans to expand two of its plants in Barron County by early 2015, doubling the company’s capacity. Once that occurs, SSS will be the largest frac sand supplier in the industry.
America’s franking boom is generating growth in companies such as SSS, a subsidiary of Emerge Energy. Hydraulic fracturing of shale formations involves high-pressure water breaking apart rock that contains oil and gas. Sand or ceramics - known as proppants - helps open the cracks in the rock and maximize the flow of oil and gas. Most of the propane market is supplied by sand.
Shearer said he wants to make sure the growth and operation of SSS is in partnership with the communities it affects. He says his company’s expansion of its Barron County plants says a lot about its relationship with that county.
“It says we’re a great corporate citizen,” Shearer noted. “ I think if you talk to people in Barron County, they will support that fact.”