By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF HOWARD — The Howard Town Hall was filled to standing room only with people who wanted to hear more about the Albertville Valley sand mine proposed by Northern Sands Wisconsin.
Many of the people who attended the public hearing October 8 took the opportunity to express their concerns about groundwater, stormwater run-off, noise, air quality, the landscape, the processing facility, train traffic and their property values.
Several people also spoke briefly in support of the proposed 1,310 acre sand mine that would be located a few miles southeast of Colfax and pointed out the economic benefit to the area.
Members of the audience who spoke were given five minutes to express their views.
Larry Konopacki of Stafford Rosenbaum out of Madison, the attorney representing the town board, asked audience members to not react to comments in an effort to provide a neutral atmosphere for everyone who wanted to speak
After a reminder when the audience applauded the first speaker, the crowd remained respectfully quiet following the subsequent speakers.
The public hearing started at 6 p.m. and concluded a little more than three hours later.
Tom Gapinske, president of Northern Sands Wisconsin, spoke for about 45 minute to outline the plans for the proposed sand mine.
Northern Sands was the parent company, and a new company, Northern Sands Wisconsin, is now in charge of the Howard sand mine. NSW acquired the assets of Northern Sands, he said.
Peak production of frac sand in west central Wisconsin occurred in 2015, and the production is now about half what it once was, Gapinske said.
In years past, a certain amount of the frac sand mined in Wisconsin was shipped to Texas to help boost the production of oil wells. Since then, oil companies have figured out ways to use Texas sand in the oil wells to save money on shipping costs.
The sand mined in the Town of Howard would not be used in Texas, and the “target markets” for the sand would be east and west using the Canadian National railroad, Gapinske said, noting the sand shipped west would head to Minnesota and to Canada.
Gapinske did not talk about specific buyers for the sand that would be produced in the Town of Howard, and it was not clear whether there were any companies currently willing to contract with Northern Sands Wisconsin to provide a market for the sand or whether the company has a contract with Canadian National.
The Town of Howard was selected as the location for a sand mine because of Canadian National, Gapinske said.
Sand is easy to find in Wisconsin, but sand located next to a railroad is “not so easy to find,” he said.
The Albertville Valley sand mine will include a processing facility, loading facility and rail yard. Construction would take 12 to 15 months. The mine would operate about 230 days per year, although the processing plant and loading facility would be likely to operate most of the year, Gapinske said.
Northern Sands started mine exploration and signing leases with landowners in 2013. Chippewa County land conservation approved a reclamation permit for the sand mine in 2015. In 2016, the project stalled because of the collapse in the sand market. In 2017, Northern Sands Wisconsin purchased Northern Sands and started doing the baseline studies and other follow-up work required by the reclamation permit. This year, the reclamation permit was transferred to Northern Sands Wisconsin, and NSW submitted an application to the township for a mine operator’s license, Gapinske said.
In March of 2018, Chippewa County asked for the studies to be completed, and one report was due August 1 and the other was due October 1. Both have been submitted to the county, Gapinske said.
All together, 466 acres will be mined. The remainder of the 1,310 acre site will be needed for buffer zones and offsets, he said.
The Albertville Valley sand mine is expected to produce 1.5 million tons of sand per year, and to ship two to three trains per week. Phase I will mine 56 acres, Gapinske said.
In response to a question from a town board member, Gapinske said the life of the mine is expected to be 25 years.
The sand will be stockpiled and will be moved by conveyor to the wash plant and processed in the dry plant. Berms will be designed to block the view from residents; the sand mine will have six silos that will hold 3,000 tons each and will fill 100 rail cars, Gapinske said.
The combination of a conveyor system and shipping the sand out by rail will most likely eliminate the need for trucking, he said.
Stormwater ponds will be located west of the processing plant, and while only two are required by the state Department of Natural Resources for a one hundred year storm, Gapinske said space for a third would be reserved, which would increase the capacity to a 500 year storm.
The “fines” will go through a recovery system that will eliminate the need for settling ponds, he said.
Construction will involve five projects: utilities (electricity, a gas pipeline and a high capacity well); site preparation for the processing plant; the installation of plant equipment; the installation of switches and the rail yard; and site development for the area that will be mined first, Gapinske said.
The high capacity well will generate 800 gallons per minute to fill the system with 11 million gallons of water, but the water will be re-used, and consumption will be 52 to 90 gallons per minute, he said.
Seven groundwater monitoring wells have been installed, and five additional wells will be installed. Baseline testing will be done on residential wells one-quarter of a mile from the site, Gapinske said.
The SCS Engineers report will help build a better project. The final engineering is not finished and is not part of the Town of Howard’s Chapter 17 ordinance for a mine license, he said.
Northern Sands Wisconsin will be allowed to mine to within 10 feet of the groundwater, and the water table will determine the depth of the mine, Gapinske said.
More detailed survey work and Certified Survey Maps (CSMs) are still needed, he said.
Johnne Smalley, a resident in the Town of Colfax, said she would like to see a written plan of “best management practices” for the sand mine so the plan could be evaluated.
Several residents from the Town of Colfax attended the public hearing and offered comments.
Although the Albertville Valley sand mine would be located in Chippewa County, a number of residents in the Town of Colfax in Dunn County are close to the proposed mine site. While the Town of Howard’s mine licensing ordinance requires a minimum setback of 800 feet from the edge of the property where mining activity is taking place to a residence, the residences in the Town of Colfax do not have that protection since the mine would be in a different county.
Smalley said she was concerned, also, about the mine operating 24 hours per day and was concerned about the groundwater, groundwater flow directions and the size of the particulate that would be covered by air monitoring.
The Albertville Valley sand mine contains two main watersheds draining in two directions, one to Eighteen Mile Creek and one to Elk Creek. Both are trout streams.
Smalley said the application “seems not complete,” and she wondered if people would be able to make more public comments after the application was complete.
Open meeting law
Todd Wanish, a Town of Howard resident and a former supervisor on the Howard Town Board, said two current members of the town board had violated the state’s open meeting law when they were seen together at a local establishment.
Konopacki, the attorney representing the town board, said there is nothing in the state’s open meeting law that prohibits town board members from eating together or from being in the same business at the same time as long as they are not discussing town business.
Since the Howard Town Board has three members, two people would constitute a quorum of the board.
There is nothing in state law that prohibits town board members from being in the grocery store at the same time or from going to the same church. The law does not require one person to change churches if they are both on the town board, Konopacki said.
As elected officials, town board members can only talk about town business in a meeting that has been scheduled with the proper notice, he said.
As long as the two Howard Town Board members were not talking town business, there was no violation of the open meeting law, Konopacki said.
Later on in the hearing, Ken Schmitt, also a Town of Howard resident, said he had been talking with the town board members when they had been seen together, and the subject of the conversation had been related to farming and was not town business.
Katherine Stahl, who lives in the Town of Colfax but is adjacent to the mine, said she was concerned about air quality and crystalline silica.
Air monitoring should be done by someone who is independent of the sand mine, she said.
Stahl said she was concerned about water quality as well.
Heavy metals, such as aluminum, arsenic and cadmium, can be released during the mining process, she said.
The application for a mine operator’s license does not contain any information about the impact of heavy metals and does not address well water contamination, Stahl said.
If heavy metals are found in the water, enhanced BMPs can be used, but by then, it is too late, she said.
Pat Popple, who spoke later on during the public hearing, said she had attended a DNR conference in 2014, and a DNR water quality specialist had talked about how changes in the water’s acidity combined with sulfides in sandstone formations can allow heavy metals to leach into the groundwater.
Several people spoke about their concerns for property values.
All together, 99 letters about the public hearing were mailed out to people owning property close to the proposed sand mine.
A couple of people pointed out their homes were their “savings accounts” — that is, they had spent their money on improving their property rather than putting the money in the bank.
When the sand mine is operational, who is going to want to buy their property? they asked.
Several people said they had specifically purchased homes in the Town of Howard because they wanted to live in the peace and quiet of the country.
Northern Sands Wisconsin wants to operate 24 hours per day.
The Town of Howard’s ordinance limits operations to 12 hours per day Monday through Friday.
Town of Howard resident Ken Secraw, who is in favor of the mine, said his sons had moved to the township and wanted their own homes.
Several people in the audience offered to sell their property to his sons.
Steve Eder, who lives about three-quarters of a mile from the proposed sand mine, said he was concerned about the 10-foot separation between the floor of the mine and the groundwater.
In wet years when there has been heavy rain, the water table can rise four to six feet, he said.
A baseline for the groundwater will be determined, but how often will the groundwater be checked? If the groundwater rises by five feet, then how will that affect the depth of the mine floor? And what if the groundwater comes up ten feet? he asked.
Mike Freeberg, who lives a half mile west of the proposed mine site, pointed out that the Town of Howard had adopted a Smart Growth comprehensive land use plan in 2009.
Part of the process of developing a land use plan involves sending out a survey to township residents.
All together, 95 percent of the Town of Howard’s residents who responded to the survey said preservation of farmland should be a top priority, Freeberg said.
Of those who responded to the survey, 79 percent believed it is the duty of the township to minimize land use conflicts and to protect property values, he said.
And out of those who responded to the survey, 86 percent disagreed with a statement that said property owners should be able to do what they want with their property even if it has a negative impact on the use, the enjoyment, or the property value of their neighbors’ property, Freeberg said.
The Town of Howard is an unzoned township.
A mine operator’s licensing ordinance was developed to protect the health, safety and welfare of town residents, Konopacki said.
The Howard Town Board can only say “no” if the proposed sand mine is going to affect the health, safety and welfare of town residents, he said.
The licensing ordinance includes performance standards, but the town board cannot impose stricter standards, such as standards for air monitoring or the testing of residential wells, than what is included in the ordinance, Konopacki said.
The Howard Town Board can only deny the application for a mine operator’s license if the proposal does not meed the requirements in the licensing ordinance, he said.
The board will try to balance the interests of the citizens and the company, Konopacki said.
Near the end of the public hearing, Gapinske said he would go through the questions that had been asked with the attorney for Northern Sands Wisconsin, John Behling, and that he would respond to those questions in writing.
The responses to the questions are expected to be posted on the Town of Howard’s website.
The Town of Howard has already posted the written comments received at the public hearing to the township’s website.
The written comments can be found under the “ordinances” tab on the home page.