By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF HOWARD — Chippewa County Land Conservation and Forest Management has reviewed the reports from Northern Sands Wisconsin for the proposed Albertville Valley frac sand mine and has identified deficiencies.
Northern Sands Wisconsin is proposing to develop a 1,300-acre sand mine southeast of Colfax that would stretch 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 is expected to 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 runs through Colfax.
Chippewa County held a public hearing on the reclamation plan for the Albertville Valley sand mine in July of 2015 and approved the reclamation plan in November of 2015.
In the nonmetallic mine reclamation permit issued by the Chippewa County Department of Land Conservation and Forest Management, Northern Sands was required to complete an assessment of the biological resources at the mine site along with an inventory and an assessment of the seeps, springs, wetlands and surface waters located within the mine boundary and the adjacent properties.
During the time that has elapsed since the reclamation permit was approved, Northern Sands has acquired new investors and has become Northern Sands Wisconsin.
Northern Sands was sued for breach of contract in Chippewa County by Northern Oak Proppants in 2017. Northern Oak was seeking $1.875 million plus interest.
According to online court records, a settlement and a stipulation to dismiss the case before trial occurred on February 26 of this year although there is no information on what the settlement entailed.
The original deadline for Northern Sands to submit the reports was July 31, 2016, but the deadline was extended to December 31, 2017, along with the requirement that the assessments and inventories be started by October 15, 2016.
According to a letter dated March 13, 2018, from Chippewa County Land Conservation and Forest Management to Tom Gapinske of Northern Sands Wisconsin, LLC, “our review has found that this submittal is deficient in meeting multiple conditions of Permit#2015-01.”
Trees and plants
According to the reclamation permit, “an assessment of the existing biological resources at the mine site shall be conducted for each spatial phase of the mine development.”
The biological assessment for the Albertville Valley mine site includes identifying trees and understory plants.
The report submitted by Northern Sands Wisconsin must include “documentation of existing trees and assemblages of understory plants using the Wisconsin Forest Habitat Type Classification System/KOTAR Method,” according to the letter from Chippewa County.
The report must also “document the methods used for field verification, including when and where the site investigations were conducted and data was collected. Site investigations shall be performed to record the plant species present,” the letter states.
While it is possible to identify trees growing in the mine site during the winter, seasonal plants cannot be identified until the growing season has gotten well underway.
Streams and wetlands
One complicating factor for the Albertville Valley sand mine is the location involves two different watersheds, one for Elk Creek, which drains to the Chippewa River, and one for Eighteen Mile Creek, which drains to the Red Cedar River.
As part of the baseline inventory of the seeps, springs, wetlands and surface waters within the boundary of the proposed sand mine, the report must identify surface drainage flow lines that are separate from stream beds and banks for the purpose of being able to establish buffers for the streams.
According to the letter, 10 seeps and 18 surface water drainages were identified in Phase I of the mine.
The inventory “shall be clarified and mapped using flow lines to depict the areas of concentrated flow and drainage-ways. Areas of concentrated flow shall be depicted separately than surface waters with stream channel characteristics (continuous bed and banks) for the purpose of establishing riparian buffers,” according to the letter.
Buffer zones help keep run-off from polluting rivers and streams.
At several Howard Town Board meetings, area residents have expressed concern about flooding after heavy rains during the summer and how the run-off would be controlled within the mine site.
The letter goes on to state the report must include the methodology used to determine the existing hydrologic features but also notes Northern Sands Wisconsin can propose the inventory be conducted in conjunction with other inventories and assessments for individual mining phases. The inventories and assessments may also be conducted in the future prior to the mining of any particular phase.
In addition, the letter indicates the report submitted to Chippewa County Land Conservation and Forest Management did not include a baseline inventory of seeps, springs, wetlands and surface waters on neighboring parcels adjacent to Phase I of the Albertville Valley sand mine.
The inventory of neighboring parcels is contingent upon access to neighboring parcels being allowed by the landowners.
The letter indicates the inventory of neighboring parcels must be completed and submitted with the follow-up report, and if Northern Sands Wisconsin does not see value in conducting an inventory on adjacent parcels, the company must provide justification using site-specific hydrologic analysis.
Hydrologist or geologist
In addition to the inventory, the reclamation permit requires a site-specific hydrologic analysis be conducted by a professional hydrologist or professional geologist to assess how mining activities and reclamation activities will impact the naturally-occurring seeps, springs, wetlands and surface waters.
The assessment is required to document the source of the water creating the seeps, springs, wetlands and surface waters.
The assessment must also include information on the extent to which the water features may be impacted by mining and reclamation activities and must also include mitigation measures to reduce the impacts.
According to the letter, the assessment indicates the seeps will not be affected by mining activities, and a monitoring well has been installed up-gradient of the seeps by the proposed rail area.
The letter notes the assessment indicates subsurface hydrology will be impacted during mining activities and after the mining is finished. When the slopes are restored, they will be less steep than the original slopes.
The assessment claims the mine site will have water infiltration rates similar to the infiltration before the land was mined for frac sand, but “field studies have shown that the post-mining land surface does not regain its infiltration capacity for forested areas,” according to the letter.
The assessment includes mitigation techniques for increasing infiltration and preserving surface drainage divides, but according to the letter, the assessment must also include “a sub-watershed delineation” to determine the water source for seeps, springs, wetlands and surface waters and the percent of contribution from each source. The information will be used to assess how each water feature may be impacted by the mining operation, the letter states.
The letter also asks Northern Sands Wisconsin, in view of the requirement that a professional hydrologist or geologist conduct the assessment, identify the person who conducted the assessment and include the person’s credentials.
The reclamation permit requires a continuous buffer corridor and vegetative buffer to prevent water pollution and to meet the standards of surface water and wetland protection as established by NR135.07.
The reclamation permit also requires a buffer 100 feet from the boundary of wetlands and the center of watercourses with defined beds and banks and states no mining or related activities are allowed within the buffer zone.
Pre-existing agricultural uses, including cultivated fields and pastures, will be allowed within the buffer, but the wetland buffer must be marked for the life of the mine, according to the reclamation permit.
The letter notes a map of the corridors and buffers was included in the December 20, 2017, report but the mapped buffer does not extend to the rail yard.
The report must identify how Northern Sands Wisconsin intends to avoid, minimize or mitigate impacts to the intermittent streams identified by the United States Geological Survey, according to the letter.
The letter goes on to say the mapped corridors were based on the location of intermittent streams identified on the USGS map but the buffer corridors were not field verified.
“Watercourses with defined bed and banks must be field verified and submitted to the Department. Riparian corridors and vegetative buffers shall be redrawn based on field verified watercourses with defined bed and banks and wetlands,” the letter states.
The reclamation permit requires all wetlands must be identified and a report submitted to Chippewa County for review prior to the start of mining activities in any phase of the sand mine.
The letter notes a partial wetland delineation was completed late in the fall of 2016, and the partial delineation identified 13 wetlands in Phase I.
The letter goes on to state the partial wetland delineation was not conducted in the appropriate growing season and to meet the conditions of the reclamation permit, Northern Sands Wisconsin must initiate a state-recognized wetland delineation for all of Phase I no later than May 1, 2018.
The report must be completed and submitted to Chippewa County Land Conservation and Forest Management not later than August 1, 2018, the letter states.