By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF HOWARD — The Red Flint Group has filed an application with Chippewa County for a reclamation permit to cover the proposed 1,300-acre sand mine and processing facility in the Town of Howard east of Colfax.
Vernon Schindler, Town of Howard chair, told the other two town board supervisors at the February 3 meeting that he had received word late in the afternoon the previous Friday about the application for a mine reclamation permit.
Four reclamation permit applications are ahead of the Red Flint application, Schindler said.
The application for the reclamation identifies three phases of the process. One phase would involve building a processing plant, railroad loading facilities, and a rail car storage track system.
Out of the 1,300 acres, approximately 500 acres would be devoted to mining frac sand, and the remaining 800 acres would be used for the processing facility, railroad loading facility, stormwater ponds, berms and setbacks. The mine is expected to produce 39 million tons of frac sand.
The Red Flint sand mine and processing facility would cover about two square miles.
Schindler said the Red Flint group is adhering to the 800-foot setback required by the Town of Howard mine licensing ordinance.
One person in the audience of about 30 people wanted to know if that meant 800 feet from the Town of Colfax line or 800 feet from a residence.
Several residences in the Town of Colfax would be directly across the road from the mining operation.
Schindler said he was not sure which was the case for the setback: town line or a residence.
The Town of Colfax is working on a mine licensing ordinance, and the Colfax Town Board recently approved a nine-month moratorium on frac sand mining to give town officials time to finish the licensing ordinance.
Another person in the audience noted that the permit application filed in Chippewa County listed Paul VanEijl, land acquisitions manager with Northern Sands, as the owner of the mining operation and listed Red Flint Group as the operator.
All three town board members said they were under the impression that Red Flint was the owner.
“What we thought we knew, we apparently didn’t,” said Dennis Dvoracek, town board supervisor.
Susan Haake, town clerk, noted that the Chippewa County land conservation office would soon post the entire permit application on the county’s website.
Scott Gunnufson, village president in Colfax, asked about the timeline for Howard’s procedure in considering a mine license.
Gunnufson attended the Town of Howard meeting because if the sand mine, processing plant and rail loading facility is built, train traffic through Colfax could increase significantly.
“Sand mining is coming closer to the village,” Gunnufson said, adding that he wanted the Town of Howard and the Village of Colfax to continue communicating.
“We should keep in touch and work together,” he said.
Schindler pointed out that Colfax is in a different county than the Town of Howard.
“Yes, but we share a rail line,” Gunnufson said.
Local residents have expressed concern that the crossings through Colfax could be blocked by sand cars, as has happened in Chippewa Falls.
If all four crossings are blocked for any length of time — Main Street, Dunn Street, county Highway M, and county Highway BB — the Colfax Fire Department, the Colfax Rescue Squad, local residents and any through traffic would have to drive miles out in the country to make their way around.
Local residents also have expressed concern about the housing development south of the railroad tracks on the Jim and Mary Schindler property.
The Colfax Village Board has purchased acreage from the Schindler property for a residential subdivision, and some local residents are wondering if anyone would want to build a house if trains were coming through at all hours of the day and night.
No estimates are available yet for the number of train cars that would travel through Colfax from the Town of Howard mine — if any — and no one at the Town of Howard meeting talked about the number of years that the sand mine and processing facility would be expected to be in operation.
Town board members noted that the proposed processing plant in Howard would cost $50 million.
According to news reports, the sand processing plant in Chippewa Falls has a valuation of $44 million, although initially the valuation on the Chippewa Falls plant was expected to be $30 to $35 million.
If it takes Chippewa County three or four months to approve the reclamation permit, “what is the next step for the township?” Gunnufson wondered.
The most important step is protecting the health, safety and welfare of Howard’s residents, Vernon Schindler said.
The Town of Howard would hire experts, at the expense of the mining company, to review the water permits and air quality permits as part of the mine licensing process, to make sure the company is complying with the ordinance, Dvoracek said.
“We have no idea if Howard will sign an agreement,” said Tom Zwiefelhofer, town board supervisor.
Any agreement with Red Flint would be “way different” than the mining agreement with EOG Resources for the S&S Mine, because the proposed project is “way bigger,” he said.
The S&S Mine along county Highway B is the only sand mine operating in the Town of Howard so far.
Town board members also noted that the mining company must have all of the permits in place, including the reclamation permit and permits from the DNR for stormwater, water and air emissions, before the Howard Town Board will begin discussing a mining agreement with the company.
The town board was asked to work “side by side” with Red Flint in developing the reclamation plan, but at that point, Howard had been told Red Flint was the mine owner, Zwiefelhofer said.
“That’s scaring me right now,” Schindler added, referring to the information that they had been told Red Flint was the owner but that VanEijl was listed as the owner on the reclamation permit application.
Willem Gebben, a Town of Colfax resident, noted that half of the sand mine companies in operation have violated agreements and DNR regulations or have bribed or threatened local officials.
According to a report released last November by the Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota-based non-profit organization, more than half of the frac sand companies operating in Wisconsin violated Department of Natural Resources regulations, engaged in “influence peddling” or conflicts of interest, or manipulated local government officials.
The report notes that between 2011 and 2014, at least 19 frac sand companies abused the annexation process to avoid regulations.
In those cases, the frac sand companies convinced cities or villages to annex the mine so that the company would not have to adhere to county regulations and could more easily manipulate local government officials to get the regulations the sand mine company wanted.
In addition, the report states that 40 percent of frac sand companies operating in Wisconsin violated DNR regulations at a Stage 2 or Stage 3 level, and even after receiving notice of enforcement action, continued to violate the regulations.
The DNR does not keep track centrally of Stage 1 violations.