Explosions shake homes, noise carries on from dawn until dusk, and workers are digging deep into bedrock — and an aquifer that provides drinking water for nearby residents — in a Wisconsin community along the St. Croix River.
Neighbors in Osceola and Farmington say they can no longer enjoy being outdoors at home and worry about pollution of their wells. So they have banded together to push local officials to protect their health, peace, and property values.
Many of the opponents have lived near the gravel pit for decades, with the problems starting only last year, when a new owner purchased it and expanded operations.
North 40 Resources, owned by Matt Torgerson of Turtle Lake, has begun digging much deeper than ever as it pursues valuable silica sand, used for industrial purposes including hydraulic fracking to extract natural gas and oil.
After nearly a year of the expanded operations and debate over it, the issue is now reaching an important inflection point.
The mining company has purchased adjoining farmland and wants to begin digging there, more than doubling the pit’s size; the township is nearing adoption of a new ordinance to regulate such operations; and a moratorium on new or expanded mines is set to soon expire.
The future of the area’s peace, quiet, and water could be decided in the coming weeks.
Although the mine is located in Farmington, it is on the township’s northern border with Osceola. In fact, the site is surrounded on three-and-a-half sides by the village boundaries. It is also adjacent to the Osceola Medical Center.
The mine’s permit allows operations to begin at 6 a.m. and continue until 9 p.m. every weekday, as well as 6 a.m to 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Mine neighbor Holly Walsh was woken one Saturday this spring at 6:15 a.m. by the roaring of gravel and sand grinding. She sent a recording and a furious letter to the village of Osceola.
“I have lived in Osceola on Ridge Road for 16 years with the Rybak quarry in operation for 15 of those years before I made any complaints,” she wrote. “Since 2019, the new mine owners are mining in a completely different capacity and this is destroying the quality of life as I have known it here in Osceola.”
It isn’t just close neighbors who are affected. Depending on which way the wind is blowing and other factors, the sound can carry all the way across the St. Croix River, which flows about a half-mile from the pit.
On April 22, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Minnesota resident Bill Neuman could hear the thundering operation from his home across the river in Franconia Township. With the broad valley between him and the pit, it was clearly affecting a large area, including the National Park between the bluffs.
“The nuisance noise from the mine is easily heard by a significant cluster of Osceola residents and also from within our Minnesota homes with all of our windows closed,” Neuman wrote. “Our Minnesota neighbors say they are also irritated by the incessant noise from the mine, and it goes without saying that industrial noise is incompatible within a National Scenic Riverway boundary.”
Last April, neighbor Lisa Curry heard and felt an explosion that made her afraid for the structural integrity of her property. She said a structural engineer hired by a mine contractor later visited her home and took photos, documenting possible damage.
“This blast was devastating,” Curry wrote in a letter to the township. “I thought the fireplace was going to fall down on top of me.”
Mine owner Torgerson said his company has taken significant steps to abate the noise, and blamed complaints on people opposed to the operation outright. In a response to Curry’s complaint, Torgerson wrote that the pit is operating within its permit.
“While we take all complaints seriously, it is important to understand the scope of our approved permitted operating hours and conditions,” Torgerson wrote. “Although we don’t expect any appreciation from certain people or groups against our operation, let it be known that we have invested a substantial amount of time and money to curb noise, aesthetics, and functionality of our operation.”
An invisible river flows through the porous sandstone where North 40 is mining. The pure groundwater provides clean drinking water to many nearby homes through private wells.
But the water gets in the way of the miners. Seeking the valuable industrial sand, which is buried deeper than the gravel deposits that have long been quarried at the site, North 40 is plunging 30 feet into the aquifer.
Farmington resident and organic farmer Dan Guenthner has been deeply involved in the debate, including serving on a special committee formed by the township to study the issue and make recommendations for new regulations.
He said based on the depth of nearby wells, and analysis by hydrologists the citizens have hired, the water flows through the area toward the St. Croix River — and toward many private residences. Essentially, the water table is much lower near the river, and higher where the mine is located.
“Groundwater flow is to the northwest, from the southeast,” Guenthner said. “In the southeast corner it’s estimated the water table is 35 feet, in the northwest corner it’s about 70 feet. There is a gradient, it is dropping as it moves across the mine.”
North 40 is mining industrial sand in the southeast quadrant, and Guenthner said they hit the water about 40 feet below the surface — and are mining another 30 feet below that.
Working directly in the groundwater raises concerns about contamination of the aquifer, which the neighbors use for drinking. Extracting and processing silica sand can lead to higher concentrations of heavy metals and toxins like arsenic.
The state of Wisconsin initiated a study of sand mining on groundwater in 2014, but it was never completed because the legislature canceled its funding. The impact of the activity remains mostly unknown. Local officials have recommended that nearby residents regularly test their tap water.
Action and reaction
North 40’s permit to operate the existing mine was issued in January 2019 with no citizen input. It is one-and-a-half pages, and never expires. There are few no restrictions, and it requires no annual review.
It was also not reviewed or approved by the village of Osceola, where most of the people affected by the mine are residents.
After mine opponents protested, and with hints that North 40 wanted to expand, the town’s three-person board of supervisors enacted a six-month moratorium on mine applications last September, and in February, extended it until June 30.
The moratorium was intended to give the community a chance to learn more about sand mining, and possibly create a new ordinance that would restrict future proposals.
Yesterday, May 21, the supervisors met with the town attorney to review and discuss a new draft ordinance. The meeting was held in person despite concerns about coronavirus. No public input was allowed. Several activists attended, including Dan Guenthner.
“We’ve been holding out that the town board members would see it in their best interest to protect the residents of the town,” Guenthner said. “We were a little frustrated on a number of occasions today.”
The activists say the draft ordinance has some helpful provisions, including reduced operating hours that would still start at 6 a.m., and an “anticipation” that no loud equipment will be operated before 7 a.m. The mine would be required to halt work by 7 p.m., and wouldn’t be allowed to operate on weekends or holidays.
The ordinance also includes requirements for monitoring wells that would detect groundwater contamination.
The town supervisors did not vote on the ordinance yesterday, expecting their attorney to make revisions. The attorney recommended extending the moratorium by another 60 days past its June 30 expiration. The board will meet again in June, when it’s expected to make decisions about the ordinance and the moratorium.
While the village of Osceola’s legal boundaries limit its jurisdiction over the mine, the community can have some influence outside its borders.
Wisconsin state law allows for a process called “extraterritorial zoning,” in which an incorporated city like Osceola can halt development within 1.5 miles of its borders for up to two years while it conducts a formal planning process in partnership with the township.
All of the existing and potential mining area is within 1.5 mile of Osceola’s borders. In fact, the farthest point of possible mining is less than a half-mile from the village.
If Osceola exercised its authority to conduct extraterritorial zoning, a joint committee with three representatives from Osceola and three from Farmington would work together to develop zoning recommendations for the area, including holding a public hearing.
So far, the village board has not made that move. But that may be changing.
A group of mine opponents, including a hydrologist and lawyer, presented to the board at a May 13 meeting, which was held virtually. They implored the elected officials to explore their options.
At this Thursday’s meeting in Farmington, it was announced the village had contacted the township, and a conversation will soon happen. It’s just one of many moving pieces in this issue, and St. Croix 360 will continue reporting on the deliberations and decisions during the weeks and months ahead.
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