At least 100 people showed up at the Farmington town hall on Tuesday night. The rural community south of Osceola, Wis. has been consumed for more than a year by the debate over a gravel pit where the miners keep digging deeper and deeper.
Most of the people who spoke called for any expansion of the mine to be stopped, and strict rules put in place.
Already, rock crushing at the quarry owned by North 40 Resources is happening from dawn until dusk. Occasional blasts shake nearby houses and excavation is occurring deep into an aquifer. Neighbors are concerned about the future of their drinking water, property values, and the peace and quiet they enjoy.
The owners of the gravel pit, which is surrounded on three sides by the village of Osceola, are interested in significantly expanding their operation on adjacent land they’ve acquired.
Dozens of residents spoke up about a new ordinance the township has drafted to regulate new and expanded gravel pits. They called for strict regulation, and for the town board to represent the will of their constituents.
There have already been numerous reports of noise from the mine affecting a large stretch of the St. Croix River. The stretch below the mine features countless freshwater springs that originate from groundwater, which could be contaminated by mining chemicals and the toxic compounds naturally occurring in bedrock that can be concentrated and set loose by mining operations.
All these concerns were voiced by speakers at the hearing. They offered facts, personal experiences, and suggestions for strengthening the draft ordinance.
“Mining activities are a direct threat to the high water quality and wild experiences that St. Croix National Scenic Riverway provides,” St. Croix River Association program director Monica Zachay said.
Nearby resident Mary Paul told the board she and her husband were kayaking down the river this summer and could hear noise from the mine all the way from Osceola Landing down to the Cedar Bend swing bridge, a stretch of about four miles.
The town board has “watered down” the ordinance from what citizens had requested, some speakers said. The group called St. Croix River Communities Against Frac Sand Mining pointed out numerous ways the draft discussed on Tuesday is too weak.
First, they say the proposed ordinance allows mining about 35 feet into groundwater.
“The original draft of this ordinance, like many town and county ordinances in Wisconsin, called for mining to stay 10 feet above the groundwater table,” the group wrote. “The Citizens Committee on this ordinance voted 5 to 2 to keep mining above the groundwater.”
Second, it allows the mine to operate at noise levels of up to 95 decibels from 7AM to 7PM. They say the EPA recommends the sound not to exceed 55 dB in residential areas.
Third, the ordinance gives the board “far too much discretion on matters of compliance and enforcement.” As written, the ordinance would let the Board waive minimum standards, allow extended hours, amend the permit at any time, or even opt out of the ordinance altogether. All of that could happen without public notice.
The group also said the ordinance should require outside engineers and other experts to evaluate mining applications, reporting, and regulatory compliance — and the mining company should pay for those experts. And the ordinance should require companies provide a “damage deposit” to pay for remediation.
“Many times over the past year you have taken the miners at their word and given them the benefit of the doubt,” said Dan Guenthner, who operates a nearby organic farm. “Those of us who have been following this process closely also know that the miners have a history of bending the rules.”
He reminded the board that the miners had told them this spring that crushing would be completed by June 1, but continued to crush more than half the days in June. The owners have also assured the board that the mine doesn’t produce potentially dangerous silica dust because they are mining in wet material. Guenthner said citizens have reported seeing plumes of silica dust 30 to 40 ft. above the piles of sand.
The mine’s owners also spoke, and were joined by two or three others who voiced support for the operation. Owner Pete Olson pointed out that they aren’t planning on excavating any of the special sand used in oil and natural gas fracking for at least two years. The fossil fuel industry has recently drastically reduced production due to a drop in demand from consumers.
But even without the frac sand market, the pit still has more than 200 customers for their gravel and other sand products, including for a new gas station being built in Osceola.
The board members listened and took some notes. They will soon decide to either adopt the draft ordinance, or revise it based on the feedback they’ve received. A moratorium on new quarries or expansions will expire on August 31.
Meanwhile, an effort to get the village of Osceola took another couple turns this week.
The village council announced a special meeting Thursday night to consider Extraterritorial Zoning. This legal process allows a community like Osceola to work with neighboring municipalities on zoning outside the village boundaries.
With the contentious quarry literally surrounded by Osceola, citizens hoped the village board would use this process. It would initiate a two-year pause on zoning changes while the village and town work together to plan for land use.
The two boards have already met twice to discuss Farmington’s draft ordinances.
But, disappointing the mine neighbors, the village board failed yesterday to find enough support to pass a resolution initiating Extraterritorial Zoning.
“We will keep fighting, but for now our next steps seemed to be focused on getting as many positive provisions in the Farmington Town Mining Ordinance as possible,” Guenthner said.
When Tuesday’s hearing ended, I took a little drive through Farmington to clear my mind. The sun was setting, the fields and forests were lush like they can only be in late summer, and there were hardly any other cars on the road.
I thought about the sharp divisions in this little rural community. Residents want to preserve their way-of-life, a company seeks to extract valuable resources from underground, and a town board with a difficult year behind, and more challenging tasks ahead.
It seemed a little like America polarization writ small. But at least this wasn’t a Facebook comment thread, instead serving as a chance to talk to each other face-to-face (even if many folks were wearing masks to protect their neighbors). Everybody had a chance to speak, and they weren’t simply ignored by the other side, but had elected officials listening and taking notes.
I finally met another car, both of us driving slowly along a narrow road. When we came together, both of us gave big friendly waves, not knowing anything about each other. It was a good reminder about giving others the benefit of the doubt.
When I turned toward home, I couldn’t help driving by the North 40 quarry one more time. It was nearly dark at 8:45, a reminder that the days are getting shorter. Everything was calm.
When I stopped my car to take a photo, I could hear the treads of heavy equipment crunching gravel from within the quarry, and beeping back-up warnings. Throughout the meeting and my drive, the miners were digging and digging.
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