The following commentary is published in the e-printed here with permission. Peter Gove is the board chair of the St. Croix River Association, a St. Croix 360 partner.
Many in Scandia and others who love the St. Croix River sighed with relief in January when the Scandia Planning Commission recommended denying a permit to reopen the Zavoral gravel mine on a bluff overlooking the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
The commission came to this decision after its own careful analysis and vocal opposition from the overwhelming majority of Scandia citizens, joined by organizations including the St. Croix River Association.
Unfortunately, earlier this week the project was approved by the City Council. We are outraged, even though the approval was tempered some by conditions we fought for, such as limiting the duration of mining and requiring an in-dependent review of Tiller Corp.’s site reclamation.
The evidence in the public record to deny this permit was sound. Bordering the St. Croix River and perched on top of sensitive bluff habitat, the site is an area designated by Scandia as a scenic “gateway.” This is the wrong place for a gravel mine so near a protected river. The hundreds of trucks that will daily enter and exit the site increases by three-fold the risk of traffic accidents.
This project is not just a local Scandia issue. It impacts countless river users, neighbors in Minnesota and Wisconsin and those who use affected roadways miles from the mine.
Scandia finalized a new comprehensive plan several years ago after considerable work by city staff and volunteers. This plan deserves praise for laying out a thoughtful community vision, balancing the need for growth while preserving the beauty and quiet of its rural landscape. It also strictly prohibits any mining at this site. However, Tiller Corp. applied for a permit mere days before this new plan was implemented. The council had the option of applying the new plan but instead relied on incorrect legal advice to apply the old plan and allow mining.
Tiller Corp. has not been a good neighbor to the St. Croix River, discharging fine sediment into the river from a Grantsburg frack sand mine for several days last April. The state of Wisconsin is considering charges in that case. The MPCA recently cited Tiller for operating a frack sand handling facility without a permit in Harris, Minn.
This stretch of the St. Croix River is popular for fishing or canoeing, for its plentiful birds and remarkable solitude so close to the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The water is clean and the bluffs largely undeveloped, thanks to tens of millions of dollars of land-protection investment by the National Park Service on behalf of all Americans. The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is our national park in the St. Croix valley and an asset benefiting neighboring communities. Local governments who border this splendid, but fragile, resource need to protect it. The landowner and the Scandia City Council had the opportunity to choose conservation for this site and decided otherwise.
This unfortunate episode in Scandia reminds us of what is happening elsewhere in the St. Croix and Mississippi watersheds. Mining companies are using their financial resources and threats of litigation to roll over communities in their quest for frack sand and gravel. Stronger ordinances, state oversight and a moratorium on new mines should be considered in St. Paul and Madison.
Continued citizen vigilance and advocacy is essential. Our organization will monitor the Zavoral/Tiller mine and not hesitate to seek enforcement of state and federal laws and regulations.