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Local concerns about proposed sand mine

By Kelsie Hoitomt

GLENWOOD CITY — Several residents in Glenwood City as well as those in Downing and surrounding areas have openly expressed their concerns, opinions and thoughts about Vista Sand and industrial sand mines in general.

St. Croix County Zoning and Mine Size

A common concern has been in regards to Vista Sand and “why they aren’t cooperating” with St. Croix County.

Vista Sand first submitted a County application in the summer of 2012 and submitted a new application earlier this year due to the first one being uncomplete.

“Vista Sand provided a nearly 900-page application to the County in January which incorporates many environmental protections,” said Anders Helquist, the Eau Claire-based attorney for Vista Sand. “In my experience working with over a half-dozen counties on sand mining issues, this was the most complete and comprehensive application I have seen.”

“The County is probably under pressure from people opposed to this project and unfortunately, the negative atmosphere has created a perceived County duty to raise new and unexpected regulations that either aren’t directly stated in the County Ordinance or weren’t issues in earlier meetings,” said Helquist. “That creates confusion and uncertainty.”

Vista Sand also has other concerns that have caused a slowdown with their processing of the application at the County level. “At the moment, we have tapped the brakes on the County application, with the main reason relating to the County’s interpretation of the mine size and our concerns for worker safety and environmental protections coming from the County’s interpretation of its Ordinance,” said Helquist.

According to Alex Blackburn in the Planning and Zoning Department, the County sent a letter to Vista Sand on February 11, 2013 asking for information that would be needed before staff could complete their review of the application.  Further information was asked regarding the proposed travel routes, receiving point(s) or rail spur, the offsite products or materials that could be brought into the site and construction and vegetation details of the proposed berms.

Additional construction details were requested in regard to the storm water ponds, reclamation ponds and wash plant. Blackburn said that Vista Sand had not fully responded to the County yet, which is fairly common for like businesses during this process.

Vista Sand provided additional information in early March and met with the County later that month. Vista Sand sought clarification on some of the information requests and they engaged in an open discussion. Vista Sand’s engineers also met with County staff in April.

In the February letter one of the County’s main questions asked for further detail, diagrams, and graphs on how the mining operation would take place within 20 acres.

According to the County Ordinance, they limit 20 acres to be “open to mining” at any one time. The County’s interpretation of “open to mining” includes areas beyond active mineral extraction such as sand stockpile and overburden storage areas, stormwater ponds, and processing areas. As a result, the active mineral extraction site is limited to an area much smaller than 20 acres, and that can create several problems, according to Vista Sand.

“The mine size interpretation is a Catch-22 for Vista Sand,” said RJ Sikes, the operating partner for Vista Sand.

“Since Vista Sand has a total of 20 acres to work with under the County Ordinance, if we use more of the 20 acres for mineral extraction, we have to shrink other parts of the project that make it environmentally-sound, such as internal stormwater ponds and overburden storage areas (berms). Reducing the size or number of stormwater ponds should not happen. It also doesn’t make sense to eliminate berms since they help shield the Village of Downing.”

“On the other hand, because Vista Sand will hold true to sound environmental controls, we will have to significantly reduce the size of the mineral extraction area to something much smaller than 20 acres. That has the potential to endanger worker safety. In some mining areas, that could result in a wall that is 100 feet high and goes straight down to the mine floor. That isn’t safe,” emphasized Sikes.

“We hope there can be a compromise down the road that protects the workers and retains the environmental safeguards for neighbors,” said Sikes. “Vista Sand has worked with County zoning staff to find a win-win solution, but right now, the County’s Ordinance interpretation is a sticking point in moving forward.”

“For example, if we are allowed to mine in 30-40 acre phases, one phase at a time, that helps with worker safety, allows us to retain sound environmental controls, preserves visual aspects of the project, and assists with successful reclamation to agricultural and recreational uses,” said Sikes.

On Sunday, June 23 the film “The Price of Sand” by Jim Tittle was shown at the community center in Glenwood City and the public was invited to watch. There were 40-50 people that viewed the film and then stayed to participate in an open discussion.

For over an hour, there were a handful of people that spoke up about their feelings and fears of the proposed mine.

One concern was with speed; that this process should slow down because it is such a large topic and time should be taken to construct the best possible city mining ordinance.

A few others spoke out about how upset and worried they were for the children of Glenwood City. It was said that the sand mine would be “suicide” to the community and the town would “die and disappear” due in part to too many people pulling their kids out of school and moving away.

At the same time, it was also mentioned by a gentleman who lives out of town that he found there were currently 42 houses for sale in Glenwood City.

With that being said, the housing market has fluctuated heavily in just the city alone before the talk of sand mining even began.

One can drive down Pine Street alone and find forty-five houses currently for sale with a handful of others that have changed owners in the past year.

Also before talk of the sand mine, local communities showed a significant population slowdown. According to data taken from the U.S. Census, Glenwood City had a population growth of 4.99% percent between 2000-2010 and Downing had population growth of 3.11%. Compared to St. Croix County’s growth of 33.55% and Dunn County’s growth of 10.03% during the same periods, the local communities have already fallen behind.

Also brought up in discussion was the disbelief that the sand mine would bring money into the city because employees would instead go to places like Menomonie to buy their goods just like now.

The same voice also expressed she felt that employees won’t live in Glenwood City either and the town won’t expand any because “ten people will move away and ten will move in” so it remains the same.

Providing Revenue

In response to those concerns regarding money going into or out of the city, Vista Sand referenced their plant in Granbury, Texas and the positive economic impact the plant has in the community.

For example, they mentioned around 130 employees are fed by a local catering business one to two times a week. Local restaurants such as BBQ on the Brazos and the Cowgirl Café provide great service to Vista Sand employees. Also local fast food chains like Subway and Sonic are frequent stops for meals as well.

Vista Sand also buys local when it comes to parts like belts, bolts, gauges, pumps, wires and those types of parts that run equipment in a mine.

Sikes described a spirit of cooperation between Vista Sand’s Texas operation and local businesses. “Sometimes a special machine part breaks and we need a replacement immediately. Instead of waiting several weeks, we take the part to a local metal fabricator and we see if he can make a replacement part,” said Sikes. “It helps us get a part we need and supports the local economy.”

According to Sikes, this would make local businesses like NAPA, Hardware Hank and Pete’s Automotive time effective options because they can respond quickly to customer needs.

Other trade jobs that coincide with opening and maintaining an industrial sand plant include mechanics, welders and cutters, electricians and metal fabricators.

From Vista Sand’s perspective, this provides a positive economic impact, not death or suicide to a community.

Air Quality

To address the concern with dust, Vista Sand responded by reiterating that the proposed mine would have a wet processing plant, which washes, sorts, and sizes the sand through water. There is no dry processing or crushers, which reduces the potential for fugitive dust.

After getting feedback from local residents last year, Vista Sand modified their plans and has proposed to strategically locate the storage piles, wet processing plant, and loading operations in a “bowl,” tucked away from County Highway G and the Village of Downing. This “bowl” is surrounded by hills, future berm construction, and natural vegetation, such as trees. The “bowl” and its associated features slows the wind and makes it extremely difficult for dust to leave the site.

Vista Sand is also required by Wisconsin law to have an air permit and follow a fugitive dust control plan. According to the Wisconsin DNR, having and following a fugitive dust control plan is vital for a sand mine. At the Glenwood City Ordinance Committee meeting on May 13, 2013, Tom Woletz, then-point person for the WDNR on frac sand, said air monitoring isn’t the end all, the key is to have a good fugitive dust control plan.

In his meeting with the Glenwood City School Board on February 20, 2013, John Stoffel, Air Management Engineer with the WDNR, stated he would not have air quality concerns if the best management practices in the fugitive dust control plan were followed at the proposed Vista site.

Controls in Vista Sand’s fugitive dust control plan will require daily inspections, daily watering and sweeping internal roads in non-freezing conditions, watering stockpiles, imposing 10 mph speed limits on internal vehicles, minimizing drop distances from conveyors to stockpiles, and recordkeeping.

Vista Sand is also working to develop a mutually-agreeable periodic air monitoring plan with the Glenwood City School District.

There are also several regulations in place that mines have to follow including air monitoring and air quality tests. John Stoffel said that the WDNR regulates all particulate matter from ultra-fine particles through 100 microns in size.

“When regulating fugitive dust, WDNR does not speciate the dust. Wisconsin and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) have not listed silica as a hazardous air pollutant. It is therefore true to say WDNR does not specifically regulate crystalline silica, but such a statement does not disclose what truly occurs. WDNR and USEPA regulate all particulate matter emitted as fugitive dust from regulated entities. We do not limit the regulation to only respirable crystalline silica. The silica is considered part of a much larger pool of particles to be considered,” said Stoffel.

Also regulating and monitoring mine worker exposure to respirable particulate matter is the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

MSHA requires analysis for respirable crystalline silica if any monitor tests positive for dust. Those exposure levels are regulated using an equation and the allowable exposure for a miner is unique to each test. With that being said, there shouldn’t be a comparison of any MSHA level of worker dust exposure to an ambient exposure at a fixed level for neighboring properties.

According to the U.S. Silica Company, Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), provided through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), exposure to crystalline silica in the confines of a workplace can lead to adverse health effects such as; silicosis, cancer, autoimmune diseases, tuberculosis, kidney disease and non-malignant respiratory diseases.

Vista Sand is aware of and follows the MSHA regulations at their Texas plant. They actively monitor the mine site to ensure worker safety occurs through following best management practices federal safety rules, and using tools like individual air monitors and daily site inspections.

There is also a fulltime Vista Sand employee that monitors the workers to ensure that MSHA rules are followed and that personal protective equipment like respirators are worn correctly.

However, crystalline silica (quartz) is not classified as a hazardous substance or waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act as well as under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act.

Under the OSHA Carcinogen section, it is not listed either,  but it is classified as a “known to be a human carcinogen” under the National Toxicology Program.

The Food and Drug Administration has silica included as a list of substances that may be included in coatings used for food contact surfaces.

Lastly, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act has quartz listed as not an extremely hazardous substance or toxic chemical under certain sections and requirements.

According to a pie chart by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 33 percent of Crystalline Silica Emissions come from driving on unpaved roads, 23 percent is from construction, 18 percent is from driving on paved roads, 15 percent is from agricultural tillage, ten percent is from wind erosion and just one percent of emissions comes from mining and quarrying.

Water Quality – Flocculants

Another question raised by opponents is with water quality and the fear that drinking water for an entire town will be tainted by the acrylamides in flocculants. Flocculants are proposed for the site as part of a “closed loop” system and they help remove unwanted dirt from the sand.

Vista Sand has already taken proactive steps to assess the site to make sure water quality is maintained. Vista Sand installed five groundwater monitoring wells in the Fall 2012 to monitor groundwater flow.

Dr. Kent Syverson, Chair of the Geology Department at UW-Eau Claire, studied Vista Sand’s monitoring data. The separation distance between the processing area floor and the water table is approximately 15 feet, and based on his calculations of groundwater flow through the geologic formations, water would take approximately 1,800 days to reach the water table at the processing site.

It also takes approximately 150 years for groundwater to flow 650 feet north from the wet processing area.

“If any water containing trace amounts of acrylamide from the flocculant somehow leaves the closed system, the acrylamide will rapidly biodegrade into carbon dioxide and ammonia. According to the U.S.EPA (1985), 74 to 94 percent of acrylamide is degraded in 14 days in aerobic soils. In waterlogged, anaerobic soil, 64 to 89 percent of acrylamide is degraded in 14 days (U.S. EPA 1985). These rapid degradation rates protect the water quality at the Vista site,” asserted Syverson.

Based on the monitoring data of groundwater travel times and knowledge of the geology at the site, “any trace amounts of acrylamide would degrade long before the water leaves the site,” said Syverson. “That means the risk for off-site adverse impacts to groundwater quality is very low.”

According to John Gralton, General Manager for Clearwater Industries, Inc, which is the company that provides the flocculant to be used by Vista Sand, the product (CW16P) would be a potable grade dry anionic polymer.

Gralton confirmed the proposed Vista Sand flocculant is NSF Standard 60 approved.

“Before Glenwood City considered NSF Standard 60 flocculants in its ordinance, we had already made a commitment to this safe flocculant (CW16P),” said Sikes.

These acrylamide based polymers are used in treating regular waste water, municipal water treatment, potable water, soil erosion control, agriculture, certain food related applications and as an animal feed additive.

“The EPA and FDA ok’d the product for food/water uses. It meets the National Science Foundation (NSF) requirements. Anionic polymers are safe to aquatic life. And lastly there are acrylamide monomers in baked, fried, cooked foods ranging from 25-2300 ppb with potato chips as an example, which have 1360 ppb,” shared Gralton.

Water Quality – Mining Depth

Others have expressed concerns about the mining depth and its closeness to the groundwater table.

Vista Sand stated mining will also occur a minimum of five feet above the groundwater table, consistent with Glenwood City’s proposed licensing ordinance.

Water Quantity – Water Use

Other citizens are worried about water being removed from the aquifer where they get their drinking water.

Vista Sand’s proposed high capacity well will be permitted after an extensive DNR review, and according to Vista Sand, will be located and operated in a manner to protect public and private sources of groundwater and will minimize the potential adverse impacts on those groundwater users.

Vista Sand’s proposed high capacity well will be located in the Mt. Simon Formation (the lower aquifer, which is not the same aquifer as the residential wells). The majority of the private wells in the area use the upper aquifer (Wonewoc Formation).

Their proposed high capacity well would be cased through the upper aquifer and the well pump will be tested to determine potential effects on the aquifer. Pumping from the high capacity well is not anticipated to impact the water level in the upper aquifer.

“The geologic makeup (Eau Claire Formation) between the upper aquifer and lower aquifer has low permeability, that is, less ability to have water move from the upper aquifer to the lower aquifer. As a result, we do not anticipate any impact to water production in the upper aquifer,” said Darrell Reed, a hydrogeologist at SEH.

As an additional protection, Vista Sand is going to use the previously mentioned “closed loop” system, which Vista Sand estimates will allow them to recycle approximately 90% of the water used in the wet processing operations.

“Our Texas operation modeled, and successfully recovers, more than 95% of the water used in the wet processing operations. Since we don’t want to overestimate the amount of water recycled, we conservatively estimate the 90% figure for Glenwood,” emphasized Sikes.

Vista Sand also thinks there is a possibility they could use extra processed wastewater from Glenwood City’s wastewater treatment center.

“If the City is open to it and if the engineering comes back okay, we are willing to look into the possibility of purchasing extra wastewater from the City to use in our processing, reclamation ponds, or dust control,” mentioned Sikes.

“This could be a win-win for the community. The City gets more revenue and less water would be used from the high capacity well,” continued Sikes.


Some citizens say truck traffic will impact their homes or be a danger.

Vista Sand says they do not discount those concerns and they are taking active steps to address them.

Vista Sand’s proposed route will come out on County Highway G west of Downing, and head west towards State Highway 128. From STH 128 they will go south to I-94. The return route will come on I-94, north on STH 128, and east on County Highway G. Vista Sand is still finalizing plans for the sand’s final destination.

“The first time we worked on our application, the Village of Downing’s first four concerns listed in a letter of theirs dealt with truck traffic through their community,” said Sikes. “We listened and as a result, we changed our plans and are no longer seeking to truck through Downing or other communities like Boyceville or Knapp.”

Vista Sand concedes there will be approximately 125 roundtrips per day, but notes they have proposed steps to minimize the impact of their trucks to the roads and local residents. Vista has proposed a binding agreement to the Glenwood City School District that trucks will not haul material off-site during peak busing hours, 7:20 a.m. – 8:15 a.m. and 3:25 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., as well as for special events such as early releases.

Vista Sand also recognizes the poor shape of County Highway G, and when the County repaves the road, Vista Sand is willing to pay the extra cost to upgrade the road so it becomes an all-season road that can handle the additional truck traffic.

“We anticipate our portion of the road upgrade will cost at least $150,000 and that is coming out of our pocket. The taxpayers won’t pay one cent of the extra upgrade cost,” stated Sikes.

Trucks will also be required to be covered entering and leaving the site, which will also reduce potential dust emissions.

Other Local Concerns and Vista Sand Meetings

There may be other concerns about the project, but according to Vista Sand, they want the community to know they are always open to questions.

“We are excited to have the chance to bring this opportunity to Glenwood City, but we also understand this operation brings questions, concerns, and uncertainty,” said Sikes. “Vista Sand has held two public informational meetings, and we continue to have an open door to listen to citizen concerns and answer questions.”

Vista Sand doesn’t expect all residents will necessarily support the project, but Sikes thinks meetings are part of being a responsible operator.

“Even if they don’t support the project, meeting with local residents, providing details about the project, and working to address their concerns is the right thing to do. It is part of a being a good neighbor. Our door is always open.” emphasized Sikes.