Farmington Town Board

Farmington Town Board members listen to a DNR stormwater specialist answer questions about the effects of industrial sand mining on groundwater. From left: Supervisors Rick McGuiggan and Dennis Neumann, and Chair Dennis Cottor.


Farmington residents with an interest in the North 40 Resources mine were encouraged last week to apply for a seat on a citizens committee. The committee of five will review concerns and create recommendations governing potential expansion of the mine. 

The owners of North 40 Resources have not approached the town board with plans to expand, according to Town Chair Dennis Cottor.  However, the group confirmed in June that they had discussed buying property with a neighboring landowner.

The citizens committee will pass its recommendations to the Variance Committee (also known as the Board of Adjustment), which will in turn make recommendations to the town board.

Those interested in joining the group were encouraged to submit contact information and reasons for their interest to Clerk-Treasurer Deb Swanson:

“We will take these concerns,” said Chair Cottor, holding a packet from a group of area residents, “give them to the committee, and the committee will go through and make recommendations to the Variance Committee.”

However, Swanson made clear that the citizen group would not influence North 40’s current operations.

“That would only take effect if they want to expand their mine,” she said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the current permit they have. The current permit is in place. It was done on good faith. So unless they do something drastic that we would have to address, that’s the permit they’re operating under.”

Reclamation and water

Conversation at the meeting primarily focused on site reclamation and risks to water. 

Reclamation does not mean returning the site to its original state. In the current plan, the slope would rise three feet per horizontal foot, and the site must be left with permanent vegetation in a non-eroding state.

The question of whether sand mining can cause heavy metals to contaminate groundwater would benefit from more study. 

Heavy metals in the wash ponds come from the site and are eventually mixed with additional soil and returned to the site, according to Jim Devlin, a stormwater specialist with the DNR.

Water samples from sand mine wash ponds have shown aluminum, lead and manganese concentrations many times higher than what is considered safe to drink, according to a report from Wisconsin Public Radio. However, a DNR study into whether such pond water is making its way to groundwater stalled for lack of funding.

There is some evidence that most of the metals do not travel far.

In a 2018 case of a sludge spill near Whitehall, Wisconsin, where a 10-million-gallon pond was drained to rescue a worker, tests conducted hours after the spill found lead levels 10 times that allowed in drinking water, and relatively high levels of arsenic and mercury, according to an AP report. However, the metals did not appear to travel very far. Levels dropped significantly 50 yards down the Trempealeau River. The DNR did not observe any fish kills.

“The dissolved portion of those metals seems to be pretty low,” Devlin told those gathered at the Farmington hall.

Devlin and Town Chair Cottor encouraged residents to test their wells annually, each saying they already did so for reasons unrelated to mining.

“It’s a concern,” said Devlin. “Would I be sampling my well? Yeah, I would.”

Needless worry or real risk?

Those gathered at the August 5 meeting were mixed as to support and opposition to the mine. 

“It seems like you’re worried about something that’s been going on for 30 years,” said David Rixmann of Farmington. 

But later, after some conversation about the possibility of pollution in the St. Croix River, Farmington resident David Aichinger said, “I don’t want to wait for there to be a problem to do something about it. Once the chemicals are in the aquifer, once they’re in the river, there’s not much you can do to go down underground and get that out. It’s in there and everyone’s wells are affected, and that’s our legacy.”

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