The town of Farmington, Wis. held an informational meeting on Monday night to discuss a controversial gravel pit on its border with Osceola. There was civil discussion, some passionate disagreement, and lots of questions — some of which were answered, some of which were not.
The town hall was overflowing, with those who couldn’t get in standing by open windows or outside the doors to watch and listen. Experts from Polk County and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tried to provide information and navigate sharp divisions of opinion.
The former Rybak gravel mine was purchased in late 2018 by a new company called North 40 Resources, owned by Pete Olson, Matt Torgerson and Mike Hanson. The town board issued a permit to the company in January to operate the pit, extending the previous permit while allowing for significant increases in activity, including more blasting, and digging deeper to access industrial sand (often used for hydraulic fracking to extract oil and natural gas).
While the previous owners had been mining about 150,000 tons of material a year, North 40 plans to mine 400,000 to 500,000 tons this year and up to 700,000 tons per year in the future.
The transition received little attention until this spring, when neighbors were startled by window-rattling explosions, and a sudden increase in truck traffic as the pit’s production rose steeply.
While the people of the town, which consists of a church, two bars, several houses, and a surrounding 40 square miles of farms and scattered ponds, discussed the issue, the name “Farmington” took on new significance. All three board members are farmers, and largely see gravel pits as normal parts of the agricultural landscape.
It’s also a source of revenue for the town, with the permit requiring payment of $0.05 per ton of material sales, capped at $20,000 per year. Opponents pointed out that the village of Osceola, which essentially surrounds the mine site on three sides, receives no financial compensation for the effects of noise, blasting, and heavy truck traffic.
But many at the meeting were also supportive, including the mine owners and workers present, and local residents who believe concerns are overblown. One resident said all the debate was distracting the board from dealing with more pressing priorities, like the condition of local roads.
Critics of the quarry ranged from a hydrogeologist who offered both expertise and questions about bedrock and groundwater, neighbors concerned about the safety of the water from their wells, and others who believe the mine harms the quality of life and threatens valuable natural resources.
Mostly, people had a lot of questions, and finally some new answers.
The meeting was organized after previous discussions had been unproductive without outside expertise, and confused by what seems like overlapping layers of regulation. Polk County’s point person on such mining, Dane Christenson, spoke first about the county’s role. Jim Devlin of the DNR was up next, and stayed at the center for much of the meeting.
Christenson explained that the county is essentially in charge of post-mining reclamation. They ensure the company has an adequate plan in place, and sufficient funding posted in a bond to pay for closure and clean-up if the company goes bankrupt or otherwise doesn’t fulfill its obligations.
North 40 Resources is obligated to close and reclaim the site as much as possible when they are done mining. Slopes are to be graded to a maximum steepness of a 3:1 ratio, topsoil is to be spread, and vegetation planted.
Devlin explained that the DNR is in charge of stormwater management at such sites, as well as any impacts to water or wetlands. He is personally responsible for inspecting and enforcing regulations on 110 industrial sand mines across the state. He told the crowd he is able to visit this pit about once every two years.
Regulating pit operations is largely left up to local governments, like Farmington. Through zoning, permits, and ordinances, municipal authorities can restrict hours of operation, require mitigation measures, and otherwise ensure mines are good neighbors.
Because of the topography of the Farmington mine pit and its depth, Devlin said there is basically “zero chance” of an overflow. All water that enters the site will drain out through the bottom, into bedrock, or evaporate.
Drinking water doubts
The groundwater threat is one area where there were more questions than answers. Mine neighbors all get their water from personal wells drilled into the aquifer below. That’s the same aquifer below the mine, and its wash pits accumulating toxins.
Extracting and processing the sand can create a lot of fine dust that could cause air quality concerns. Then, when it is washed with water and chemicals to remove extra material, naturally-occurring metals can be concentrated in the waste, and then seep into groundwater.
The wash ponds are not lined, though a material called “flocculent” that is used in processing eventually forms a clay layer on the bottom.
Nobody knows for sure if groundwater contamination is a real risk. The DNR initiated a study of sand mines and groundwater in 2016, but Devlin said the funding was cut subsequently and the research never completed.
“We don’t know if these washing ponds discharge,” the DNR’s Devlin said.
There is one test well near the site, where water is routinely drawn and tested for toxins. It is 166 feet deep, while neighbors at the meeting mentioned their home wells were approximately 60 feet deep, meaning a higher water table that could be more quickly contaminated, and which will discharge more water into the pit the farther down the miners dig.
In the absence of scientific research or policies for protecting groundwater, Devlin and others at the meeting urged homeowners to get their well water tested now and continue doing so regularly. That would not only ensure their water is safe to drink but establish baseline levels that can be monitored for any change.
Figuring out the future
Because the permit has already been issued under existing town ordinances, the board says there is little legal leeway for changing it now. “We can’t touch the original permit unless there’s a violation,” said board chair Dennis Cottor. “We had a hearing, no one came, we issued a permit.”
When asked about a permit violation that had already occurred, an extremely loud early morning blast that shook Osceola on April 26, town clerk Deb Swanson said they gave the company a warning.
A citizen then asked how many warnings or violations a company could get before reopening the permit. “That’s up to our discretion,” Swanson said.
There are “rumors” the operators will propose a significant expansion in the future, at which point a new permit would be required. North 40 confirmed in June that they are in negotiations to purchase the additional property.
In the meantime, the town is forming a special citizen committee to research the issue, report back to the board, and identify potential new policies to protect the community and the environment. It will report to the Board of Adjustment, which can pass along recommendations to the board.
“The board needs to hear from the community what their concerns are,” Cottor said.
Farmington taxpayers can apply to be on the committee via the town website. The board will select members from the pool of applicants.
One citizen suggested the committee be increased in size from the proposed 3-5, saying it was in line with similar issues elsewhere. He also encouraged the town to provide some resources for the committee, such as outside expertise in legal and other technical matters.
After nearly an hour-and-a-half, the mine meeting ended so the regular board meeting could begin. The crowd streamed into the parking lot, having asked what they wanted, said what they needed to say, as swallows and dragonflies flew overhead in the light of the setting sun.