Anyone who spends time in downtown Winona has seen them: growing piles of silica sand reaching skyward from the grounds of the Modern Transport Rail loading terminal near Huff and Second streets.
The stockpile has become an icon that frames the local debate about the sand rush - and the complex decisions and opinions of all parties involved. The arrival of silica sand-related businesses to southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin has sparked controversy and discussion across the region.
Last week, as city of Winona staff proposed changes to the way the city issues permits and regulates businesses handling frac sand, local residents turned their attention to the most visible daily reminder of the industry - the 40,000-ton pile of sand on Second Street that some have dubbed "Mount Frac."
A booming business
Three years ago, Sierra Frac Sand owner Kim Smith of Longview, Texas, was flying his plane to Eau Claire, Wis., for a business meeting when he noticed he was low on fuel. He decided to land at the Winona Municipal Airport, but before touching down he saw a business from the sky: Winona Aggregate. Within five minutes, he was on the phone with the local company to talk business.
"We stayed in contact," Smith said. "It started right there."
The connection between Sierra Frac Sand and Winona Aggregate initiated cooperation among several local businesses to mine, wash, store and transport silica sand in the city of Winona. The city now has six active sites where sand is either mined, shipped or processed, with at least two more locations proposed.
The increase in demand for silica sand has created new opportunities for those working at Modern Transport.
"It's maintained jobs and created jobs," said general manager Tony Wasinger. The company has added four jobs since the demand for silica sand skyrocketed about 18 months ago, Wasinger said.
Winona developer Rich Mikrut, who leases the Second Street location to Modern Transport and runs a sand shipping operation, said the new industry can benefit the local economy.
“They say it’s these big Texans coming in and making the money; they’re not,” Mikrut said. “The truckers get a little, the washers get a little, the rail gets a little. It’s all local dollars we’re keeping here.”
Job creation goes beyond the sites where sand is handled. Local truck drivers from CD Corp. haul sand from locations in Arcadia, Wis., and the Biesanz Stone Quarry in Winona to Modern Transport and other facilities. CD Corp. co-owner Dan Nisbit said the company has seen additional revenue and added jobs since the silica sand boom arrived.
“It’s created five to six new jobs, but probably saved 10 existing jobs,” Nisbit said. He said the partnership with sand-washing and shipping facilities helps other local trucking companies, too.
“We have an agreement where we do all the trucking, and when we can’t handle it as a company we hire (local) outside trucks,” said Nisbit.
A sand problem
“Mount Frac” has created benefits for some, but it’s dealt a dusty disadvantage to its neighbor across the street — Chrysler Winona.
“This summer, we noticed a sand problem,” said general manager Andrew Puetz. “We noticed dust particles adhering to the paint.”
Puetz isn’t opposed to the industry — “More jobs mean more car sales,” he said — as long as it doesn’t affect his business. Puetz said because of dust from the sand piles, all 130 cars stored on-site need to be hand washed every two to three days. The company had to increase employee hours and hire an additional part-time employee to help with the extra labor, a move that Puetz said costs the dealership about $2,000 a month.
“The unknown cost is lost sales. That’s the thing we’re most concerned about,” Puetz said. “We’ve had so many comments about how filthy our cars are and had customers ask what color they are.”
Modern Transport has hired a street sweeper to clean dirt and dust off Second Street several times a day, but Puetz said the dust problems are worst during the cleanings. Other local businesses agreed.
“The only time the dust is really bad is when the street sweeper comes by,” said Bryan Volkert, manager at Sears, which abuts the Modern Transport land. “It creates a huge cloud of dust.”
Dust isn’t the only concern.
At the Winona YMCA, executive director Andy Blomsness said the increase in truck traffic coming from the interstate bridge could make the facility more dangerous for members. The YMCA, a block from the bridge, has 3,900 members but only 96 parking spots, Blomsness said — members often park on nearby streets, then cross them to get to the building.
“Any time there is an increase in truck traffic, it puts us into a situation where we need to be even more careful with our kids and families,” Blomsness said.
Wasinger, the Modern Transport manager, said he doesn’t want to create difficult situations for area businesses.
“If we’re negatively impacting them, we need to find a way to mitigate that,” Wasinger said.
Other Modern Transport neighbors said they haven’t had any issues with noise, dust or increased truck traffic.
“It’s always dusty in here. I’m not sure if that’s from the sand,” said Myrtle Shira, manager of Restored Blessings Christian Retail Shop on Second Street.
Nikki Stanton, owner of Rochester Wholesale Fruit, also said she hasn’t had any problems with the sand operation across the street.
Old neighborhood, new feel
Residents living close to Modern Transport have noticed changes to their neighborhood since the sand and trucks moved in last summer.
Tex Hawkins, who lives near King and Huff streets, said sometimes there’s a thin layer of dust on his car. Marilyn Schneider of Harriet Street has noticed grit and sand on the plastic cover on her morning newspaper. Some bikers and walkers now avoid Second Street because of heavy truck traffic.
“There is a feeling of neighborhood, but the neighborhood is being eroded,” Schneider said. “It’s changed a lot.”
One concern raised by multiple residents is the potential for health issues caused by airborne silica sand. Silica dust is known to cause adverse health effects, including cancer and the incurable lung disease silicosis.
“There’s that fear of knowing that there is a carcinogen in the air, but not knowing how it will affect me or my kids,” said Shari Schuh, who lives on West Fourth Street a few blocks from Modern Transport.
“If it’s a windy day, you can see it and feel it. It’s in the air,” Hawkins said. “It’s going to affect everybody’s lives in some way.”
Schuh said she also worries about the increased truck traffic causing safety issues for people walking and biking near Levee Park.
“It has changed our lifestyle,” she said. “We used to walk
down to the levee a lot, but I definitely don’t feel like I can send my 9-year-old to do that anymore.”
Other neighborhood residents said they haven’t had any problems with the new activities.
“There’s definitely more trucks on Second Street,” said Laura Pettersen, who lives on Fourth Street. But she added that she hasn’t had any issues with dust, noise or traffic. Her neighbor across the street, Samantha Wagner, also said she hasn’t had any problems.
Wasinger said his company is committed to working with the city and nearby businesses and residents. He said Modern Transport’s goal is to reduce sand stockpiling and focus instead on loading the sand directly onto rail cars.
Smith said that if trucks damage Second Street, Sierra Frac Sand will foot the bill.
“We want to be good neighbors,” Wasinger said. “There’s some growing pains involved with this, and we need to work together to come up with a positive solution.”