By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A representative for Northern Sands says the company will voluntarily apply any setbacks established by the Town of Howard in Chippewa County to properties located in Dunn County.
Paul van Eijl, land acquisitions manager with Northern Sands, spoke to the Dunn County Planning, Resources and Development committee at the May 27 meeting about a sand mine he hopes to develop in the Town of Howard.
People who live in the Town of Colfax in Dunn County have expressed concern that while the Town of Howard has established setbacks for mining activities, those setbacks would not apply to properties along the boundary between Dunn County and Chippewa County.
At the May 13 meeting, PR&D members discussed whether it might be possible for the counties or the two townships to use the state statute that applies to intergovernmental cooperation to establish setbacks for the properties in Dunn County.
Van Eijl told the PR&D committee that he is working with the Howard Town Board to develop the mining proposal and that the company would voluntarily apply any setbacks.
A telephone call by the Colfax Messenger before the PR&D committee’s May 13 meeting to Dan Masterpole, Chippewa County land conservation, confirmed that there had been no formal application to Chippewa County for a reclamation permit for a sand mine in that part of Howard.
As of May 28, there was no information on Chippewa County land conservation’s website pertaining to an application for a reclamation permit from Northern Sands.
Bob Walter, chair of the PR&D committee, noted that the Howard sand mining project had “pulled the trigger” about concerns for properties in Dunn County but that there were other parts of the county where the same issue was a concern and that intergovernmental cooperation would be a continuing agenda item for the committee.
Van Eijl said the sand mine he is proposing would be a non-trucking facility, that there were plans to use conveyors, and that he would be willing to show maps to the PR&D committee.
Gary Bjork, county board supervisor from Colfax and a member of the PR&D committee, wondered how close the sand mine would come to the Dunn County line.
“It depends on the testing,” van Eijl said.
Closer to the county line, the sand is “adequate” for fracking purposes, but the reserves are not very deep, he said.
North of the Canadian National rail line, the reserves are deeper, van Eijl said.
The Town of Howard has a developer’s agreement with another sand company, and if the Howard Town Board establishes an agreement with Northern Sands, would the company be willing to include Dunn County residents in the agreement? Bjork asked.
Van Eijl said the company has made offers to purchase properties that are close to the area of the proposed mine.
A list of 20 to 25 properties have been included on a secondary list, and a few of those properties are in Dunn County, van Eijl said.
Property owners should “let the operation go up,” wait for a year to see where it is going, and then decide if they want to move, he said.
At that point, the property owners will be offered either the appraised value or the fair market value, whichever is higher, van Eijl said.
“We have a substantial amount budgeted for this item,” he said.
Van Eijl did not elaborate on whether the appraised or fair market value would be determined before or after the sand mine started operating.
The closest mining area to Dunn County would be north of the railroad tracks a half mile from the county line, he said.
Bjork wondered about the Northern Sands timetable for developing the sand mine.
Van Eijl said company officials are planning to apply for the necessary permits in a couple of months and to have the permits approved and in place by January.
In addition to the reclamation permit from Chippewa County land conservation, the company will need several permits from the state Department of Natural Resources, including stormwater runoff and erosion control, not to mention a mine operator’s license from the Howard Town Board.
Van Eijl said the company plans on starting construction in the spring of 2015 and that the licensing agreement with the Town of Howard will exceed what the township has established in its ordinance for well testing and inspections.
Howard requires wells within a quarter mile to be tested, but Northern Sands will test wells within a half mile; Howard requires inspections every three years, but Northern Sands is proposing to do inspections every two years, van Eijl said.
The Dunn County properties can be put into the licensing agreement with the Town of Howard, he said.
According to the Town of Howard’s mine licensing ordinance, sentinel wells are required at the extraction site and quarterly samples are required to test water quality.
Private wells within a quarter mile of the mine site are required to be tested every third year, except if a sentinel well indicates contamination of the groundwater and there are no private wells within a quarter mile, all wells down gradient within a half mile must be tested.
The ordinance also states that the Howard Town Board can require wells within a half mile in any direction of the mine site be tested at any time.
The Town of Howard’s ordinance defines “mine site” as anything related to nonmetallic mining, including structures and equipment, dry and wet processing plants, loading and unloading facilities, private haul roads, and includes all land under common ownership or control of the owner or the mine operator.
As a former zoning official, “I want to be sure this is done right,” van Eijl said.
The Town of Howard is an unzoned township.
According to a November 2012 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that was also published in The Seattle Times, van Eijl was the zoning administrator in Buffalo County.
Frac sand companies have been luring county employees away and offering them sweet deals to work for the sand companies because county officials know the area and how to navigate local regulations, the article notes.
Several experts quoted in the article say it is a conflict of interest for county officials who resign and go to work for frac sand companies that have applied to the county for permits.
Margaret Wolf, a resident on 810th Avenue in the Town of Colfax, said she lives about a quarter mile from the mine site.
Howard is protected on three sides, but the Dunn County side is not protected, she said.
Wolf urged the PR&D committee to “get it in writing” for the protection of the property on the Dunn County side.
Wolf said she was concerned about silicosis and other health issues; the environment; water wells; and property values.
“Protect us on the Dunn County side with a written (agreement),” Wolf said.
Hjordis Olson, a resident on county Highway A, lives a mile from the proposed mine.
Olson said her husband is a potter, that tourists come to their place to buy pottery, and that the sand mine would turn an agricultural area in to an industrial area.
“This will affect our economic situation,” she said.
A lodge in the Chetek area refers people who are looking for pottery, and tourists have come from Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Connecticut to buy pottery and have talked about the beauty of the area, Olson said.
Although her husband does have pottery in galleries, one quarter to one third of their income is derived from tourists visiting her husband’s studio to buy pottery, she said.
The people from Los Angeles called the area “pristine” and said the air was so clean that food tasted better, Olson said.
Whenever tourists come to buy pottery and they are wondering about places to eat, Olson said she directs them to Colfax and suggests Mom’s on Main or A Little Slice of Italy.
One tourist from Connecticut sent a thank you note, mentioned that they had gone to Little Italy, and said they “loved the pizza,” Olson said.
“Our small business contributes to other small businesses in the area,” she said.
An industrial mine site will not encourage tourists to visit the area, Olson said.
“This is a gold rush, and we need to put the brakes on,” she said.
PR&D Committee Chair Walter said the committee had asked Nick Lange, the county’s attorney, to research the legality of intergovernmental agreements for sand mining or anything else that crosses county or town lines.
Walter said the PR&D committee would figure out a way to include information on the agendas that would let people know whether the committee would be acting formally on the intergovernmental agreement issue or the Colfax frac sand issue.
That way, people from the Town of Howard and the Colfax area would not have to travel to Menomonie for the PR&D meetings if the committee was not planning to take any formal action, Walter said.