Post election, if you want something new to question Rep. Michele Bachmann about, question her involvement in Minnesota’s St. Croix River bridge project. Until Bachmann stepped in, the various stakeholder groups were working on completing an appropriate compromise. When the new mega-bridge was suddenly pushed through it made no sense – on the surface. After all, there is a comparable bridge just a few miles away in Hudson. Bridge traffic in Stillwater didn’t warrant a new bridge of such massive proportions. And Minnesota has bridge projects it can’t even fund for repairs.
While the $700 million St. Croix River bridge project was passed with bipartisan support, it was led by a Republican representative at the same time the Republicans proposed funding cuts of $40 billion in federal transportation spending.
Over the river, and through the frac sand hills
What was on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River, across from Stillwater, that was driving the so-called need for a mega-bridge? Frac sand. Frac-sand mining operations are “exploding” in St. Croix, Barron, Rusk, Dunn, and Chippewa Counties. The industry’s projected hundreds to thousands of trips per day by trucks carrying heavy frac-sand loads needed such a massive bridge. In north St. Paul on the Minnesota side of the river, rail yards list “frac sand loading” as part of advertised job descriptions.
The first choice for frac-sand transport would be by rail, but there is this wee bit of a problem with many of the railroads in Wisconsin. They are not up to the job. Many tracks in northwest Wisconsin are idle or in a state of disrepair, tracks would need to be built or rebuilt. And transfer fees are cost-prohibitive.
The Sept. 15, 2011, “Frac Sand Briefing” at the Minnesota State Capitol listed the following as one of three “issues” facing the frac-sand mining industry: “Access to Rail: While the Department [of Transportation] has been involved in acquiring and improving local rail spurs, there are many local lines in need of improvement before they could carry large-scale freight loads. High fees for switching cars from the secondary lines to the main ones used for interstate freight movements also lead to loads being trucked greater distances before finally being moved to rail.”
The other two “issues” cited, while couched as local government concerns, were essentially the industry’s concerns: “road weight restrictions” reducing profitability, and “disproportionate” liability for damage to local roads.
Another mode of frac sand transport is by river barge. The aggregate river terminals in Cottage Grove and St. Paul Park have truck access, not rail. It was also interesting to note Minnesota Department of Transportation statements that, “Currently, there are no active terminals on the St. Croix.” However there is a “non active” terminal at “the Xcel Energy [Allen S. King] plant at Bayport on the St. Croix River.” This non-active terminal is just a hop, skip, and four miles from the new mega bridge exit. There is also a rail line at the Xcel Energy Allen S. King plant.
With the building of the St. Croix River mega-bridge, all frac-sand transport bases would be covered.
Bucking the National Park Service
Who needs the frac sand? Oil and gas corporations do. Bachmann has long been advocating for, and been supported by, the oil and gas industry. By pushing the bridge project through, Bachmann accomplished a secondary effect. Bachmann and her corporate supporters have also long been attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, and degrading our environmental and health protections in order to promote corporate profits and power. Getting a precedent-setting exception to the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act to accommodate frac-sand mining fits their agenda of corporations first. Bachmann’s bill stipulated the mega-bridge be “deemed consistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” (MPR) — despite the National Park Service having determined otherwise.
It is obvious why the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, celebrated. According to the Star Tribune, Walker referred to the project as a bridge called “cooperation.” A bridge called “corporation” would have been more apropos. As reported in Forbes, Walker’s recall election was won with plenty of oil, gas, and related industry money.
Why Minnesota’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Al Franken, and Gov. Mark Dayton jumped onto instead of off the new bridge project is open to speculation. It is a pretty safe bet that without the intervention of Minnesota’s Democratic triumvirate pleading the case, President Barack Obama would have paid more attention to the National Park Service determination that “the proposed St. Croix River Crossing Project would have direct and adverse effects that cannot be avoided or eliminated.” (Pioneer Press) Apparently Bachmann and our senators believe they are better equipped to make decisions about the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway than the people in charge of it; so they just bypassed the law by introducing a bill that ignored it.
Franken said, “I want to make clear that this is a unique situation with unique needs, and that we are not declaring open season on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” (Pioneer Press). But by setting the precedent and declaring it acceptable to ignore the act, they have opened the season with a frac-sand salvo.
And a sniper shot may well have come from Michael Wilhelmi, recent executive director/president of the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing. According to its website, “The Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing is a group of business, labor, government and community leaders from Minnesota and Wisconsin.” No mention of citizens. Nowhere on its website is there a list of its board of directors, sponsors, business and labor members.
The State of Minnesota however has a list of lobbyists. Lobbyists register and file termination with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. On Oct. 31, 2012, Wilhelmi terminated his role with the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing as a lobbyist “to influence legislative action” and “to influence the official actions of a metropolitan governmental unit.” Five days later, on Nov. 5, 2012, he turned around and registered “to influence legislative action” for the Aggregate and Ready Mix Association of Minnesota (ARM). As the ARM website states, “Aggregate is sand, gravel and crushed stone in their natural or processed state.” Frac sand.
Citizens versus corporations
According to the Pioneer Press, ‘The St. Croix River was one of the first Wild and Scenic Rivers designated by Congress in 1968; the Lower St. Croix was added in 1972 through the efforts of the late Gaylord Nelson, who served as both Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, and former Minnesota Sen. and Vice President Walter Mondale.” … ‘[In 2011] Mondale submitted written testimony opposing the [bridge] bill. “I believe the huge bridge that would be authorized by this measure is a brutal assault on one of the most magnificent rivers in America,” he wrote.’
Ironically, a catalyst for bringing the St. Croix River under the protection of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was the intrusive Xcel Energy Allen S. King plant. Yet Klobuchar and others are now implying that their massive mega bridge is not an issue because the Xcel Energy Allen S. King plant is already next door, with its obtrusively massive smokestack. So much for precedence not having an impact!
None of them mentions that, as emission concerns mount, the Xcel Energy Allen S. King coal-fired plant’s smokestack could soon become obsolete and be removed – as the Xcel Energy High Bridge plant’s stack was four years ago. Their new mega-bridge, however, would be left as a permanent blight on the Wild and Scenic St. Croix River.
What a difference a few decades can make in politicians and political motivations, transporting us from legislation designed to benefit generations of Minnesota citizens to legislation designed to benefit corporations first and foremost, and at citizen expense.
Corporations have been bestowed with so-called personhood. What about the rest of us? We all deserve equal influence as well as equal representation under the law.
C.A. Arneson lives on a lake in the Ely area.