By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF HOWARD — The Chippewa County Land Conservation and Forestry Management Department will soon start reviewing the proposed reclamation plan for the 1,300-acre Albertville Valley Mine a few miles southeast of Colfax.
Seth Ebel, a project engineer with Chippewa County land conservation, and Dan Masterpole, Chippewa County conservationist, spoke about the Albertville Valley Mine, the S&S mine and mine reclamation in general at the Howard Town Board’s March 3 meeting.
Since the land conservation department has not started to review the Albertville Valley Mine’s proposed reclamation plan, Ebel said he could only talk about the proposed reclamation in general terms.
The Albertville Valley Mine is being developed by Northern Sands.
The proposed 1,300 mine site stretches north and south along the Chippewa County and Dunn County line directly east of the intersection of county Highway N and county Highway A.
The mine site will include a wet processing plant, a dry processing plant, rail car storage area and a rail loading facility.
The site is located along the Canadian National rail line, which also runs through Colfax, Boyceville, Wheeler and Downing.
The proposed Albertville Valley Mine is “a large chunk of land that is stretched out,” Ebel said.
The wet and dry processing plants would be located along the railroad. The first mining of frac sand would begin to the southwest and would progress north in phases, he said.
Trout streams drain off the mine site, and there are wetlands and streams on the mine site, Ebel said.
In general, the reclamation plan for the mine site includes prairies, woodlands and a pond that will be left to detain stormwater runoff and for infiltration of water, he said.
The Town of Howard requires 800 foot set-backs from residences, Ebel noted.
A map of the proposed mine site includes a number of circles indicating the 800 foot set-back.
Vernon Schindler, chair of the Town of Howard, wondered how long it would take for Chippewa County to review the proposed reclamation plan.
In general, plan review takes about six months, Ebel said.
Sometimes the plan review will go faster than six months, but sometimes it will take longer, depending on the mine site, he said.
The Albertville Valley Mine “is a big area. There is a lot to look at,” Ebel said.
Mining in Chippewa County has gone through a prospecting phase, beginning in 2008, then a planning phase, a permitting phase and is now in a production phase, Masterpole said.
What county officials did not anticipate, he said, is a second resurgence of frac sand mine prospecting occurring right now.
Chippewa County land conservation receives the reclamation permit applications, reviews the plans for specifications required by the county and the state, and reviews the plans for adequate engineering to ensure post mining land use, Masterpole said.
Under the authority granted to the land conservation office by Chippewa County’s reclamation ordinance and by state law, “if those all come together, we are obligated to (issue) (the reclamation) permit,” he said.
One person in the audience wanted to know what restrictions there would be on sand mine acreage reclaimed as a pasture.
After mining, with the sandstone gone, the land has lost its filter for the groundwater, and agricultural chemicals can more easily get into the groundwater, he said.
The first generation of reclamation plans when mining started in Chippewa County were not adequately specific for post mining land use, Masterpole said.
Chippewa County now requires that the mining companies identify post mining land use at the very start, when the reclamation permit applications are submitted, he said.
Reclamation possibilities include forest or agricultural land, ecological land, such as wood lots or prairies, or land suitable for development as residential subdivisions, Masterpole said.
The mining companies “must commit to the end goal,” he said.
Chippewa County requires that the post mining land use stay in place for the life of the mine, Masterpole said.
After the reclamation plan is complete and the mine site is closed out, then it is the landowners’ responsibility to maintain the post-mining land use, he said, noting that he calls it “truth in reclamation.”
At this point, however, “we do not know what, if anything, will grow on these mine sites,” Masterpole said.
Chippewa County and the mines in the county are participating in a five-year groundwater study.
UW-River Falls also is conducting a top soil study involving the frac sand mines.
Colfax resident Willem Gebben said the sand mines are “going into it hoping (the land) can be reclaimed. But if it cannot be reclaimed, then what?”
Gebben said studies should have been done first to see if mine sites could be reclaimed, before frac sand mining started.
“That’s the logical scenario,” Masterpole said.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the hand we were dealt,” he added.
“We are in for a very long journey … we will need to take the time to find out what we can do,” Masterpole said.
Mark Halpin, a trustee on the Colfax Village Board, wondered about the time frame for developing a woodland.
The minimum performance periods would be five to ten years, Masterpole said.
“You are not planting back into soil. You are planting back into mine soil,” he said, noting that the areas where sand mines are developed tend to have a very thin layer of topsoil to begin with.
One goal of reclamation is to get “value added,” Masterpole said.
“Maybe a prairie that is a home to (song or game) birds,” he said.
One woman in the audience wondered if anyone at the county level is concerned about the proximity of sand mines and the sand mines running together.
“A few people will benefit, but more people will have to deal with it,” she said.
“Yes, people have been concerned about (the proximity of mines) since the very first hearing,” Masterpole said.
When sand mining companies began applying for reclamation permits, land conservation office personnel said “we have a concern. We need a better understanding of what clusters (of sand mines) will do the groundwater,” he said.
The mining companies have all agreed to participate in the five-year groundwater study and to have monitoring wells at their mine sites, Masterpole said.
The groundwater study is into its third year, and when it is completed, the end result will be a groundwater model that will predict how the sand mines could impact the groundwater 20 years from now, he said.
Under the regulations for reclamation, Chippewa County land conservation cannot take into account other problems with mining, such as sand dust, noise and traffic, Ebel said.
“Communities and neighbors are being impacted,” he agreed.
One person in the audience wondered what is included under water quality in the groundwater study.
The water quality studies are looking at a variety of issues, such as nitrates in the water, arsenic in the water and lead in the water, along with petroleum derivatives and residual polyacrylamides that could come from the flocculents being used to help settle out the fine material, Ebel said.
Is every sand mine testing for acrylamide in the water? asked Ken Schmitt of Colfax, who farms in the Town of Howard.
If the sand mines are wet processing, they are testing for acrylamides, Ebel said.
EOG Resources operates the sand mine in the Town of Howard along county Highway B known as the S&S Mine (Schindler and Sikora).
The S&S Mine has had four reclamation permit amendments since the mine started, Ebel said.
The permit changes are relatively small: to allow for a second dairy barn on Robert Schindler’s property; for installing another driveway; for raising the height of a berm; and for monitoring groundwater quality after stormwater runoff in 2014.
EOG Resources was brought in by the state Department of Natural Resources for a conference and to work on a stormwater plan, Ebel said.
EOG will be increasing the holding capacity of three stormwater ponds at the mine site, he said.
Fine material in the water that runs off the sand mine settles to the bottom of the ponds and seals off the bottom so that good infiltration of stormwater is not achieved, Ebel said.
EOG Resources will be working on flow control management of the stormwater retention ponds, he said.
It is important to reduce the energy of the water coming out of the mine site so it does not cause damage once it leaves the mine site, Ebel said.
EOG Resources has a $1.8 million reclamation bond for the S&S Mine, Masterpole noted.
Some of mine reclamation bonds in Chippewa County are as high as $3 million, he said.
Originally the bonds were set at a flat rate of $10,000 per acre, Ebel said.
“We found out flat rates do not work. We need to assess each mine individually,” Masterpole said.
EOG Resources will be updating the reclamation plan for the S&S Mine, and at that point, there will be a public hearing on the updated plan, Ebel said.