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St. Paul residents concerned about trains carrying frac sand through neighborhoods

The frac sand controversy that is riling up folks in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin has now raised questions in St. Paul.

Lines of open rail cars carrying frac sand, as seen from the Raymond Avenue bridge looking east.

The frac sand controversy that is riling up folks in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin has now raised some questions in St. Paul.

The fine silica sand mined from Minnesota and Wisconsin quarries is injected into wells to release oil and gas in a hydraulic fracking process. The sand is transported to wells in other states by rail and boat.

Mining permits and transportation issues of the sand are being forcefully debated in Winona and other river areas.

Now residents in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood have noticed yellow sand passing through their neighborhood in uncovered railroad cars, and wonder if they should be concerned about potential health problems.

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Railroad cars filled with what appears to be frac sand are regularly spotted passing through the neighborhood under the Raymond Avenue bridge; sometimes they sit for days on the tracks, residents say.

A long string of uncovered cars with yellow sand was visible from the bridge Thursday night, stretching to the east.

But the Minnesota Commercial Railroad, which operates 150 miles of track in the Twin Cities, said in a letter to area residents that the sand they see going through the city in the company’s uncovered train cars is not hazardous:

“It is raw quarry sand with a high moisture content – six to ten percent, and very heavy. It does not “blow” off of trains. Commodities identical and similar to this have moved in open top cars for decades without any environmental problems.”

The letter says an “outside independent consulting firm” tested air samples in and around the rail cars, and found that “air quality was not impaired in the area.”

“The sand has so much moisture content that during winter months, it freezes into large clumps … It is important to note that the moisture content and qualities of this have NOT varied or changed and we continue to monitor it. The air quality monitoring devices were placed at locations where both loaded and empty cars were located. It is also important to note that the sand in rail cars retains this high moisture content making blow off impossible.”

To try to get to the bottom of the issue, the St Anthony Park Community Council will hold an informational meeting June 27, at the South St. Anthony Rec Center, 890 Cromwell Ave. (Community organizer Lauren Fulner-Erickson would like RSVPs, for planning purposes.)

Fulner-Erickson said representatives from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Commercial Railroad and Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway (BNSF) will be at the meeting.

“There’s conflicting information out there and much uncertainty, so we’ll listen to what they say about the sand and the transport, and the community will be able to ask questions,” she said.

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“But people who live nearby have said they noticed the sand going through everyday and some cars that sit for days,” she said.

Concerns about the sand reached the St. Anthony Park Community Council’s Environment Committee, which hopes to get the railroads to cover the sand.

Amy McBeth, BNSF public affairs director, told the Park Bugle newspaper that “frac sand is hauled through [St. Anthony Park railbeds] in covered and uncovered hoppers.” But she said the sand is “natural sand, akin to beach sand.”

And while Minnesota law requires trucks to cover loads to prevent contents from falling, blowing or leaking from truck beds, the paper said, there is no similar law for railroads.

Fulner-Erickson said the St. Anthony group is also working on the matter with the nearby Hamline-Midway, Como and Union Park councils, along with the Southeast Como neighborhood group in Minneapolis.

“The railroad is a major piece of our community; it bisects our neighborhood,” she said.

“Our goal is to figure out what’s actually happening — what’s being transported, what are the laws, what are the potential health concerns. And if there aren’t any criteria, we’d like to work with the MPCA to develop some.

“Sand blowing in the air is not a healthy thing.”