Dozens of residents crowded into Farmington’s town hall July 1 to voice and listen to concerns regarding the future of frac sand mining at the limestone quarry and gravel pit. A few even peered in from outside through the open window as many of the same themes explored at Osceola’s board meeting last month resurfaced.
Chief among these was North 40 Resources acquisition of the property from Rybak in January, with a plan to mine 400,000 to 500,000 tons of material this year and possibly more in the future. This is a dramatic increase from Rybak, which mined 150,000 tons per year. Additionally, North 40 is now mining for silica sand, also known as “frac sand” for its intended use in hydraulic fracturing.
In order to respond to residents’ concerns, the board secured a letter from the DNR outlining many of the environmental precautions the mine is required to take.
“It is important to note that this mine is already a permitted facility as a limestone quarry. The current proposal is to convert this mine from limestone to Industrial Sand (ISM),” Non-Metallic Mining Coordinator Roberta Walls wrote in the June 28 email to Chairman Dennis Cotter. “Many of the risks to natural resources tend to occur when a new facility starts up. An established mine that expands has a reduced risk to resources. That said, DNR does have added monitoring and review criteria for the Rybak mine.”
Walls wrote the mine is considered to be internally drained, meaning that drainage stays within the mine’s footprint, and that the advent of frac sand mining in addition to limestone will not expand upon the number of ponds used for processing.
“This site is proposing the use of an approved polymer with a use restriction on the amount for protection to surface and groundwater quality,” she wrote. “The new permit requires monitoring of these ponds if they discharge to either surface water or groundwater that includes metals and toxicity levels.”
Many residents, however, were left unconvinced. Members of the OHS Eco Club collected signatures throughout Osceola, Farmington and the surrounding area on a petition opposing frac sand mining. Standing Cedars Land Conservancy board member Dan Guenther, of Farmington, stated that since the April 26 mine blast, he had researched the issue in-depth, and presented his findings.
“This mine sits roughly a quarter mile from one of the first federally protected rivers in the country,” Guenther said. “Frac sand mining is a real threat to the… natural beauty that drew us to live here.”
Guenther’s research focused on economic, rather than environmental, drawbacks to frac sand mining, though. He cited the decline in property values experienced by Arcadia, Wis. residents who lived near a mine, as well as the boom-and-bust nature of the industry.
“One-half to three-quarters of all frac sand mines risk permanent closure within three years in Wisconsin,” he said, citing statistics from a recent New Richmond News article. He asserted that mining would not create local jobs; rather, most employees would be contracted haulers from outside the area who would not contribute to the local tax base.
Mike Forecki of Osceola stressed the need for greater regulation and testing regarding air quality and water quality of the mine’s output. He was met by Cotter saying that the board had simply followed the law.
“Have you ever heard that the DNR ain’t God themselves? I haven’t,” Cotter said. “So when the DNR says something, I listen, and that’s what we did. We didn’t have to ask any more questions.”
“You weren’t prepared for the Pandora’s box you were opening up,” Forecki responded. “And I’m saying that it’s still not too late. There are things we can do to protect the water and the citizens around there, to keep them from blasting too much. … And I say, let’s do it. If the miners are going to say there’s no risk to air or water, then let’s do the tests.”
Clerk and treasurer Debbie Swanson said that if frac sand mining in the area would be impermanent, as Guenther suggested it could be, then there was no reason to be worried. This was met with outcry.
Mike Hanson of North 40 Resources also responded to the proposal of further regulation.
“We’re certainly not against having air monitors out there. We’re not required to do that, we’re not required to pay for that, but when you’re looking up all your research, take a look at all these sites that have been studied, and do have air monitors, and have had them for many years. You will see that silica sand mining is not the same as the fractured dust that causes silicosis. … We’re certainly not against an air monitor, but we’re not agreeing to pay for that, because we believe the science shows that on our site, the concern does not exist.”
The board decided to add an additional hour and a half to August’s meeting in order to have more discussion time on the subject, as well as the formation of a committee of residents on both sides of the issue. The meeting will commence at 5:30 p.m., rather than 7, on the evening of August 5.
“I just want to say to the board, thank you for doing your job,” one resident said. “You’ve done your best under the circumstances. Usually at these meetings, the biggest concern is what do we do about Dump Days.”
Free Dump Days, meanwhile, will be replaced with a pay-as-you-dump plan through collaboration with Waterman, which will provide a dumpster at the town hall on the first Saturday of every month from April to November. The rental of the dumpster will cost $300, with an additional charge of about $200 depending on the weight. Residents will have to pay around $10 to get rid of objects such as furniture and grills. Among a list of prohibited items are refrigerators, computers and tires.