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Little River bulkhead could soon see sand transportation

Sand mine moratoriums have been in place for months, and although they prevent mines from being started in Red Wing and Goodhue County, they certainly don't prevent sand from traveling through the community.

A few weeks ago, the Red Wing Port Authority was approached about loading unprocessed sand from Wisconsin mines onto barges at the Little River bulkhead located next to the Xcel Energy steam plant. While the port technically owns the bulkhead, it has leased the operation since 1999 to Landfill Services Inc.

The contract permits the company to use the bulkhead to load and unload a number of materials, including aggregate. Since silica sand is classified as aggregate, the port has no jurisdiction on what Landfill decides to do about using the bulkhead as a transport station for sand.

Still, since health concerns about silica sand have been swirling in the region for months, Port Authority President Mike Grove said he wanted to make sure the public was well-informed about what may happen.

"So that it was not anything that was done in the darkness or underneath the table," he explained.

Grove updated both the Port Authority and its Harbor Commission about the situation at their respective meetings Tuesday night, referencing his talks with the bulkhead operator. The issue wasn't listed as an action item on either agenda.

He said the proposal is to have between 25,000 and 30,000 tons of sand unloaded onto barges each month of the operating season -- equating to about 75 trucks every weekday.

"What we were told is the trucks are currently moving through to Cannon Falls to get rail-loaded," Grove said, explaining that the shipping method would simply change from train to barge.

Sand has already been passing through the community, but concerned citizens spoke out at the harbor and port meetings to show their disapproval of the new shipping method.

"What's the financial gain versus the obvious 'hasslement' that's going to happen?" Frontenac resident Jim McIlrath asked.

"Depending on how much is actually moved is how much the Port Authority would get," Grove said.

The Port Authority makes 42 cents for every ton that crosses the bulkhead, up to 100,000 tons. Going by the numbers estimated by Landfill for the amount of sand expected to be hauled monthly, the port could stand to make in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year.

Other citizens expressed worries about air quality as a result of all of the sand.

"Asbestos was safe until it wasn't. Cigarettes were safe until they weren't," Red Wing resident Michelle Meyer said, describing how the hazards of silica sand eventually could be realized in the same way.

Grove explained that Xcel Energy has air quality monitors in place as a requirement of environmental permits for the steam plant, which burns trash. In addition, he stressed that the sand would not be stored on the site.

In fact, the time it spends there won't be long at all if the system goes as the operator described it. Grove said the operator envisions a conveyor belt system in which trucks would back up to a hopper and pour in the sand. It would then be unloaded onto a conveyor belt that would bring it into a barge.

The only reason sand may spend more time at the site, he explained, would be if a truck showed up before a new barge was brought in and the sand was dumped on the ground instead of immediately onto the conveyor belt.

Port Board members took note of questions the public asked at Tuesday's meeting and plan to find answers where they can.

But it looks as though they won't have much time.

"My understanding is that the sand company would like to start by the end of this month," Grove said about his talks with Landfill.

Although they're aware they don't have control over when operations could start, port members discussed asking the sand company and the bulkhead operator to wait just a week longer to give them time to research the public's questions before their June meeting.