The issue of the proposed Tiller/Zavoral gravel mine has been grinding forward since 2008; so long that many area residents believe it to be already decided or inevitable. But the matter is very much alive and its outcome yet to be determined.
A Draft Environmental Impact Statement was released on February 28, initiating a public comment period that will end on May 18. A single public hearing was held April 3 at the Scandia Community Center.
Comments may be submitted to the City in writing at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to peruse the Draft EIS, you’ll find it posted on the City of Scandia’s website (see Tiller/Zavoral Mining and Reclamation Project). It’s also available in hard copy form for review at City Offices.
64 Acres, 1.2 Million Tons, Up to 10 Years
This proposed 64-acre gravel mine would be located on the St. Croix River bluff at the intersection of Highway 97 and Scenic Highway 95 (map), just 1.3 miles north of William O’Brien State Park. Under various scenarios being considered, it would operate for as little as three years and up to ten years (a “subalternative” 150 working day option has also been floated).
Ironically, the City of Scandia’s current approved Comprehensive Plan does not allow mining in this environmentally-sensitive location. Nevertheless, Scandia’s Mayor and City Council have thus far upheld Tiller/Zavoral’s contention that the project should be considered under the rules of the now-outdated plan in effect at the time of their initial application.
Wrong Time to Blink
The City’s requirement that an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) be undertaken for this project was a prudent move. The information it provides should inform the City’s decision on whether or not to grant a conditional use permit for the mine, based on a better understanding of likely impacts to the broader community in such areas as public safety, natural resources, quality of life for residents, and economic vitality. Unfortunately, neither the staggering cost of EIS preparation (most of which is borne by the applicant) nor the months or even years to prepare, nor the size of the resulting document (this Draft EIS is 206 pages) is a guarantee of its worth.
At issue here and now is whether the Draft EIS accurately, adequately, and objectively conveys the potential impacts of the mine on the surrounding community. For example:
- Has it fully investigated the direct, indirect and cumulative effects on Federally endangered mussels in the river, nesting and migrating birds, the brook trout stream located on the property, and other habitat for wildlife?
- Does it truly capture the impacts on the recreational experience of those fishing or canoeing this reach of the St. Croix Scenic Riverway (a National Park)?
- Has it adequately assessed the risk to drivers on the Scenic Highway who will encounter up to 736 hauling trucks in a given day at this intersection?
- Does it fully address the ramifications of the site’s early mining history, associated with a well-documented major blow-out of sediment into the river?
Reviewers of the Draft EIS are raising substantive doubts. Many of these same concerns were initially expressed during the document’s preparation, when preliminary reports were issued. Intrepid souls willing to dive into the voluminous public record on the City’s project webpage will discover numerous challenges.
Concerns include matters such as the short duration of the pump test used to assess groundwater impacts; the limited scope of information on wildlife and natural features; the use of out-dated and incomparable “comps” in assessing impacts on surrounding property values; the failure to identify an alternative site for the mine (or to provide a concise explanation why not, as required by law); the inadequate assessment of noise impacts; water contamination concerns related to a possible 1000 gallon fuel tank stored on site (after earlier assurances of “no on-site fuel storage”), and removal of 5.4 acres of mature white pine-hardwood and maple-basswood forest. These are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
More subtle but far from objective is language throughout the Draft EIS that “plays up” the value of eventual reclamation while downplaying the value of community benefits that would be preserved by not mining the site. The so-called “no build” alternative gets short shrift in the DEIS, despite the fact that the public record is brimming with citizen input on the site’s existing values. Letters submitted to the City describe the importance of the site in relation to the community’s rural character, the peace and tranquility enjoyed on nearby trails and on the river, the high quality of drinking water drawn from local wells and spring boxes, the biodiversity of native plants and wildlife on adjacent lands, and the scenic qualities of a natural environment that inspires residents and visitors alike. The impact of the proposed gravel mining operation cannot be fully appreciated without such context.
Outstanding natural features and a National Park
What is not in question among those familiar with this area is the exceptional quality of the natural features on Zavoral’s land and on properties bordering the proposed mine. The area is designated by Audubon as part of the St. Croix Bluffs Important Bird Area, and is designated by the DNR as a Regionally Significant Ecological Area.
Immediately below the proposed mine, along the river, is the Rustrum State Wildlife Management Area. The private lands on neighboring properties (though not open to the public) are host to a myriad of seeps and springs emerging from steep slopes and rock faces; even a dramatic water-whittled, time-carved gorge that channels the cold waters of a trout stream. This stream, Crystal Spring Creek (also known as Zavoral’s Creek), has a healthy, reproducing population of brook trout, and is currently under consideration by the DNR for state designation.
Along most of its perimeter, the mine would abut land held in scenic easements by the St. Croix Scenic Riverway: the National Park we are privileged to enjoy and serve as citizen stewards. It is, without doubt, one of the most lovely, most vulnerable places along the St. Croix: a place characterized by the sounds of bird song, wind moving through the needles of towering white pines, and the trickle of spring water bound for the river.
As currently proposed, the Tiller-Zavoral mine would pull 1.2 million tons of material from the site, excavating to a depth ranging from 10 to 70 feet.
Honestly, this had better be one heck of an Environmental Impact Statement. Let’s help to make it a good one. Read. Listen. Comment. Help rally the expertise, the political will, the community support, the facts.
Find out more:
- For questions regarding this posting on St. Croix 360, contact Laurie Allmann at email@example.com
- For the Draft EIS and documents in the public record, see the City of Scandia website
- The proposed mine would operate within the jurisdiction of the Marine-Carnelian St. Croix Watershed District.
- A grassroots citizen-based group in Scandia has been active in opposing this mine. Contact Take Action–Conserve Our Scandia (or TA-COS), at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Sustaining the values of the St. Croix will require that each generation make a renewed commitment to the cause. We will need to be most vigilant on the local level, making land-use decisions carefully and responding to threats to the riverway as they arise.”
– Former Vice President Walter Mondale, co-author of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, (in) “Watch This Wild River,” Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine, July-Aug, 2006.