The stretch of the St. Croix River from Osceola to Copas offers startling solitude and silence. Even though it is in the city of Scandia’s backyard, a half-hour from Stillwater and Forest Lake, and an hour from the Twin Cities, float below the bluffs and you can feel a hundred miles from anywhere.
A short trip on the river offers eagles and herons, swimming holes where spring-fed creeks spill from the bluffs into the river, and fish ranging from scrappy smallmouth bass to mythical muskies.
This peaceful stretch of river also passes by the site of a proposed gravel mine in Scandia, which has been hotly debated for the past several years and is finally nearing conclusion this winter. Tiller Corp. and the landowner, a doctor from Edina who has a cabin on the river below the site, want to mine and restore the land, while others want to keep the area free of noise, trucks, and pollution.
In the middle are the citizens who serve in Scandia’s government.
Coming to a Close
On the first Monday of January, the city’s Planning Commission voted on a recommendation to the city council about the mine. The commission had been considering a Conditional Use Permit since environmental review was concluded in September.
Monday’s meeting did not include any public comment — in a big room the five members of the commission and four city staff talked to each other in front of an audience of about 50 who watched the discussion in silence.
Two resolutions were up for consideration. One recommended approval of the permit, with a lengthy list of conditions meant to mitigate its impact. The other recommended denying the application, and carried with it a long list of whereases explaining the reasoning — a list which everyone knew might have to stand up in court.
The commission had spent two meetings discussing the resolution to approve and spent this meeting reviewing the resolution to deny, before voting.
Previous meetings had featured lots of input from the public. Citizens spoke against the possibility of noise intruding on the St. Croix, or the possibility of groundwater contamination, impacts on fragile bluff lands, or the heavy truck traffic on Highways 95 and 97 and through the town.
Supporters of the mine pointed to changes in the proposal to reduce impacts, the benefit of reclamation activities after mining, and the need for gravel to make road material.
Opponents, supporters and those trying to make sense of the complicated issue all look to the legal landscape — and the possibility of the company suing the city if the permit is denied.
The time for talk was over, though, and Monday there was finally a vote.
After more than two hours of discussion, Commissioner Tom Krinke made a motion to pass the anti-mine resolution. Commissioner Phillippi seconded. Then, one by one, the other commissioners voted — all of them in favor of denying the permit, except Commissioner Schwarz, who abstained.
The matter now goes to the the City Council to either accept the commission’s recommendation or reverse it and issue the permit.
On the ground
On one of those short, cold afternoons in December, right before the winter solstice, the Planning Commission visited the site with representatives of the mining company. Leading the trip was Mike Caron, Tiller’s Land Use Affairs director. City councilmember-elect Dan Lee was along, as was Planning Commission member Steve Phillipi and commission chair Christine Maefsky.
The group drove in a caravan of four trucks around the site, stopping at several locations to see where mining would occur, where reclamation is planned, and other points of interest, like an old well which would pump up to 10,000 gallons per day for use in suppressing dust from the mine.
At each stop, everyone piled out of the vehicles and gathered in a clump, stomping cold feet, peering at maps as Caron and his team referenced our location with piles of gravel, leftover from when the mine operated sporadically between the 1960s and 1980s. Also visible on the aerial photos were the three gullies which run down to the river.
The site was quiet and peaceful, resembling other meadows in the uplands of the river valley. But under the snow, most of the land is in rough shape. Mining stopped abruptly in the 1980s and the terrain remains uneven, characterized by berms where you can see the original elevation of the land, piles of excavated material, and depressions and pits. It is scattered with small pines and overrun with invasive plants.
The first destination was a small area ringed by old piles of gravel and dirt. The company representatives showed how the entrance road would be built to come down to this level. They would sort through the old piles and pull out the quality gravel for processing and use the other material to build a road down from Highway 95 to this level. This would give them a front to start the mining in earnest.
As the group stood talking about mining and reclamation, gravel and groundwater, one of the river’s many bald eagles glided overhead. Illustrations were produced showing how the land would be reshaped after mining to prevent erosion, and re-planted with native vegetation.
Between a rock and a river
The next stop was the site’s easternmost extremity — the part closest to the St. Croix. Everyone walked through unbroken snow to the top of a berm. It was covered in red pine and mixed hardwoods.
The ground on the other side dropped dramatically toward a classic river valley gully. Fifty feet below, a dry streambed cut sharply down through the bluff, interrupted by a seasonal waterfall. You could imagine spring here: ferns and flowers on the forest floor, pale green leaves on the trees, water rushing over sandstone to the river, birdsong.
The land just on the other side of the gully is privately owned, and according to the state Department of Natural Resources meets the criteria for a Scientific and Natural Area. (One such designated area is located about a mile north.) Also nearby is a trout stream under consideration for state designation.
From this vantage point, Caron pointed through the trees to a shimmering patch of river about 350 yards away, acknowledging its proximity. Where he was pointing, someone on the river would find a wooded point of land, with the sprawling marsh and backwaters of Rustrum Wildlife Management Area across the channel. A creek enters below the point at a big sandbar where you might beach your canoe and swim on a summer day.
Because it is located so close to the river, this part of the mine site is protected by both the city and the National Park Service. The only activity here would be reclamation work to improve water flow, erosion, and native habitat, using heavy equipment like bulldozers.
As we turned to walk back to the cars, I looked across the flat and snowy mine site. It was quiet and still here; at that edge of the mine, we were closer to the river than the highway.
Reclamation and revisions
Because the area has already been mined, the proposal’s goals include re-establishing water flow, planting native vegetation, and creating a more natural landscape. The plan would be to perform mitigation on parts of the site while other parts are mined.
The need to ensure reclamation is completed as promised is part of the city’s challenge. At a planning commission hearing last month, anti-mine activist Lisa Schlingerman testified that she is concerned because reclamation of previous mining at the site was not completed.
Because the reclamation in Tiller’s proposal would occur at the same time as mining, an opportunity could exist for Scandia to monitor the mine and revoke the permit if reclamation is not happening as planned.
That type of monitoring and enforcement was discussed at the January 7 meeting. Commissioners wanted to know if the city would have the staff and resources to oversee the mine in this delicate location, with a complex plan and likely a long list of special permit conditions. Commissioner Tom Krinke was skeptical, stating that he thought it would be hard to work out an agreement with the company to fund such city work.
Tiller has modified its mine plan since it originally proposed the project. Changes have included processing the gravel off-site, which would mean more truck traffic but less noise and dust, and no holding and washing ponds, which could spill into the river. (Just such a thing happened last April at Tiller’s sand mine in Grantsburg, Wisconsin.)
The one thing the company can’t change, of course, is the location. The gravel wouldn’t be there if not for the river. When the St. Croix was a raging flood millennia ago, draining glacial lakes Duluth and Grantsburg, it deposited the material — sediment in its mighty stream — at sites like this throughout the valley.
“Think about the incessant beep, beep, beep of earth movers in reverse,” Dan Willius urged the Plannning Commission at a December hearing. “Or the harsh crash of heavy steel on steel when truck gates slam closed. Or the deep-throated growl of diesel engines under stress.”
Willius was speaking from the experience at his family’s cabin on the river near an active gravel mine in Franconia. (Willius is also on the board of the St. Croix River Association, a St. Croix 360 partner.)
The St. Croix River’s silence is one of its most valuable attributes, and the issue of mining noise is perhaps the most direct concern for the river.
But silence is subjective, and the river is often not truly quiet. It is just that, in the absence of other noise, visitors can hear the natural sounds of water, wind and birds. That fact has caused one of many disputes in the mine’s environmental review.
At a recent public hearing, Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway environmental coordinator Jill Medland said natural noise levels on the river used in the environmental review were flawed because they were measured during the “noisiest” time of the year — the height of summer, with lots of bird and insect sounds. Think of the cacophony of crickets from the banks on an August afternoon.
Based on those levels, the mine is predicted to barely exceed ambient noise levels on the river. But during spring, winter and fall, there is much less natural sound to cover up the mine’s noise.
Deciding how much sound is too much has been difficult for the city. The Environmental Impact Statement compared noise levels from mining and hauling to standards set by the state of Minnesota. The National Park Service urged the city to use its more stringent standard.
During the Planning Commission discussion, city planner Sherri Buss told Commissioners that Minnesota law forbids the city from setting more stringent policies than the state standard. The commission wrestled with whether adhering to the Park Service regulation would constitute setting a policy.
The commission ultimately left statements in the anti-permit resolution about the Park Service opinion and noise standards. The standard, just like the river’s proximity, just like the sound of a mine, could not simply be ignored.
Rules of the game
Land Use Goal 10: Protect the natural and scenic resources of the St. Croix River Corridor, both within and adjacent to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, while allowing traditional residential and recreational use patterns to continue.
– City of Scandia Comprehensive Plan
Scandia only became a city in 2007, after incorporating from its previous existence as New Scandia Township. Washington County governs things like mining in a township, but a city manages its own land use. So the Tiller mine proposal landed in Scandia’s lap not long after it became a city.
Tiller first applied for the permit in November 2008 — just as Scandia was developing a new Comprehensive Plan, which governs things like land use zoning. An extensive community initiative was underway, including surveys of residents, numerous public hearings, and focus groups. The plan was adopted five months later, in March 2009.
The new plan strictly prohibited mining on the Zavoral property and the surrounding area. This difference is the most legally contentious point of the debate.
The city told Tiller early in the application process that its proposal would be considered under the old Comprehensive Plan, which allowed mining with a Conditional Use Permit. But as opposition to the mine grew, residents urged the city to let the new Comprehensive Plan guide the decision.
During Monday’s meeting, Planning Commission chair Maefsky cited the hundreds of hours of volunteer time citizens put into developing the new Comprehensive Plan, and all the effort expended by the city. She said ignoring it, especially now that it’s been on the books for several years, would be a waste of that work.
Members of the commission, including Commissioner Schwarz, were particularly concerned that if the city rejects the mine outright, the matter will go to court. If a court overturns the city’s decision, mining could be allowed, and without any conditions that the city could impose. Tiller could mine as long as it wants, process and stockpile gravel on the site, and many other activities that the city could restrict if it grants a Conditional Use Permit.
In an interview with the Forest Lake Times, Tiller representative Mike Caron said Tiller had sued a city once before over a rejected permit. A settlement was reached that allowed the project to go forward.
Bill Clapp has been another vocal opponent of the mine. Before retiring, he worked for Minnesota’s Attorney General, serving the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (he is also on the St. Croix River Association board).
In an email after the Planning Commission vote, Clapp said he thought the commission made the right recommendation, and made it the right way:
“They chose the new comprehensive plan, except, implicitly for the part that does not allow mining on the Zavoral site. Their rejection of the mining project was based on the conditions required for a conditional use permit to be issued. Those conditions are identical in the new and the old comprehensive plans.
“If the city council goes with the planning commission’s findings, then I don’t think Tiller has much likelihood of winning an appeal.”
The river next door
The city council election in Scandia last year was held before the Planning Commission began its public hearings. While running for office, Dan Lee said he felt that the city couldn’t play a “zero-sum game” with Tiller, rejecting the mine and gambling their ability to control the project in the face of a possible lawsuit.
The day of the Planning Commission’s site visit in December, I introduced myself to the group by saying I write for a website about the river, covering everything from conservation to fishing. To that, Lee laughed and asked, “Can you tell me where the crappies are biting?” I told him I couldn’t but if he told me where, I’d put it on the Internet.
Lee divulged nothing.
This Tuesday, Jan. 15, the Scandia city council will take up the matter. City administrator Kristina Handt recently that the public should get an idea of which way they are leaning on the issue during that meeting. The council has to decide what it will do by February 20; a second meeting about the issue is scheduled for Feb. 19.