(first published on WIvoices.org)
Earlier this month, Texas-based company Vista LLC resubmitted its application for the “Vista Mine” in Glenwood City, WI after withdrawing its original application last summer. Vista’s initial proposal in July 2012 did not comply with county ordinances for a mine operating in an agricultural/residential zone.
WIvoices.org’s previous interview with small business owner Jim Laskin cited numerous community concerns about the Vista Mine including its size, location, and potential health hazards for the community.
This time around, we sought out a county official in an attempt to educate the public about the process the “Vista Mine” frac sand application can expect in St. Croix County. In the following interview Alex Blackburn, Land Use and Conservation Specialist, details the review process and timetable involved for Vista’s newest proposal, which may come before the St. Croix County Board of Adjustments for action as early as February 28. If approved, frac sand mining in Glenwood City could begin as early as April 2013.
Alex Blackburn is St. Croix County’s “point man” in a 3-person crew tasked with reviewing an application from a company seeking to operate a frac sand mine next to a public school in Glenwood City, WI.
Q. In my understanding, Vista is applying for a special exception to operate a mine in a residential area in Glenwood City. Is that correct?
A. Yeah, the proposed mine is on property zoned ‘Ag-Residential.’ In that zoning district non-metallic mining needs a special exception permit. When mining companies come in and say they want to mine sand, it falls under ‘non-metallic mining’.
Q. Most of the public is not aware of the process for mining applications. Would you speak to that?
A. So, applicants bring in the application. First, we determine if the application is complete. That’s what we are in the process of doing, right now. If it is complete, then we put it on the agenda and we do a staff report. As staff we compare it to the ordinance [SCC non-metallic mining ordinance]. Then, we make a recommendation and bring that to the Board of Adjustment. The Board of Adjustment is the quasi-judicial body [5 members ] who review special exception permit applications. Staff presents the staff report at the public hearing and is present to answer questions from the Board and any members in the audience…Staff doesn’t confer with the board members outside of a public hearing about facts pertaining to the case.
The hearing is posted in the paper for two weeks [The Baldwin and The Glenwood City Tribune Press Reporter only]. The public hearing notice is also posted in the hallway of the government building, and on the County website. And we notify adjoining land owners so that they can come in to participate.
Q. How many Zoning Specialists are there, such as yourself, that will make a recommendation to the Board on Vista’s application?
A. We are right in the middle of restructuring. We’ve got Tammy Wittmer and Steve Olson who will also look at this. I work with distributing the original application and any revisions, air quality, and writing the background section of the report. Steve reviews the application to assure surface water is protected and also reviews the reclamation section. Tammy reviews the application to assure the groundwater is being protected.
A copy of the application is mailed to the Town of Glenwood, the Wisconsin DNR, and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) for their input and comments. The DOT looks for truck traffic bottlenecks at the intersections and potential travel routes. I get calls from the public and read all the letters, probably about 40-50 of them voicing their opinions for and against. I make copies of those letters and attach them as exhibits in my staff report for the Board to review.
Then, we get together and I take their ground and surface water input, along with air quality, input from the town and the DNR and the DOT and the three of us get together and write the staff report.
Q. Which of those organizations takes a cumulative snapshot of the impact of a group of mines in one area? For instance, the “Vista Mine” would make a third mine in the area including the “Downing Mine” and the “Wilson Mine” already operating nearby.
A. Well… [standing up and pointing out the mines on the map]…by cumulative effects, I would say that we more or less look at the sites individually. The DOT is the one who looks at the more cumulative effects…they look at all the mines in St. Croix County along with mines in other counties. Then, they look at where there will be potential traffic congestion.
Q. Would you look at potential ground water depletion with 3 mines grouped together?
A. Yeah, we do look at the high-capacity wells that they install. They need a WI DNR permit for those. One of the things we look at is the language in the ordinance. So, here is an example of how we compare an application to an ordinance. [Running his finger down the page to locate a section in the ordinance paperwork] The ordinance reads a “non-metallic operation and reclamation shall be conducted in a manner that does not cause a permanent lowering of the groundwater table that results in adverse effects on surface waters….” So, we’ve got some language in the ordinance that we compare the application against.
Q. What is the time frame involved here?
A. Once the application is complete, we have 90 days for the board to take action. So, what we are doing as staff – myself, Steve, and Tammy will get together on January 29 (2013) to determine if it is complete or not, or if we need more details. If it is complete, we have to put it on the February 28 or March 28 (2013) Board of Adjustment agenda. Then, they review the application and take action. Action can be to approve, conditionally approve, table or deny the request.
Q. Can the Board choose to throw out your recommendation and do their own thing?
A. [Pause] All I can say is that it is a recommendation, they make the final decision.
Q. Can you recall the Board ever not taking your recommendation?
A. Not that I can think of [Pause]…sometimes they make minor changes, but nothing significant.
Q. When Vista submitted an application the first time, if I remember correctly, your staff was going to recommend that the BOA deny Vista’s application unless they addressed ground water concerns and could limit themselves to 20 acres. To your knowledge, have they addressed those concerns this time around?
A. The last application, they proposed a mine – which includes extraction of sand, washing, stockpiling, processing, includes all of that. They wanted to do that on about 60 acres. Our ordinance requires them to limit it to 20 acres.
So, what we did was give them the option. We told them, ‘We can bring this forward [to the Board of Adjustments] if you want, but we are going to recommend denial, because it doesn’t meet the ordinance requirements. ’ That way they had the option to withdraw the application.
Q. There is a lot of fear out there, and I just want to make sure that I understand correctly. Is it true that you want to work with the mining company to make sure that they fall into the framework of the law – not the other way around? For instance, you don’t re-write the mining ordinance so that it works for the mining company.
A. Right. Generally, if you can meet these conditions [tapping the ordinance document] then you can have this use [tapping Vista’s mining application]. That’s how special exceptions work.
Now, they can have a larger mine site – Vista’s mining application, for instance, is several hundred acres. But they can only have 20 acres open at a time. So, they have to reclaim all but 20 acres at any given time, which includes all the processing, washing, etc… So, they will have to reclaim as they go. If approved, this would be a 20 acre pocket of mining moving all over this hundreds of acres of mining site.
In counties where there is not a limitation, they can rip open hundreds of acres. And those are the pictures that people see.
Q. Is there any language in the current mining ordinance that allows Vista LLC to claim that because there are other mines operating on over 20 acres in the county that they should also be allowed to operate on over 20 acres as well?
A. Several other mines operating in St. Croix County that are over 20 acres were operating prior to these rules. They are ‘grandfathered in’ and are not subject to that limitation. This application is subject to the current non-metallic mining ordinance. Vista did inquire about a variance, so that they could operate on over 20 acres. But there is not a variance option in Chapter 14, the St. Croix County Non-Metallic Mining Ordinance.
Q. Last question. Is there any chance that you misinterpreted your own ordinance and Vista LLC should have been recommended for approval the first time they applied?
A. When we told Vista that they needed to limit themselves to 20 acres we knew that it would be a significant change in their operation. So, we reviewed with our Corporation Counsel, an attorney, to make sure we were making the correct interpretation. But you know – decisions can always be appealed in court if somebody disagrees with the Board’s decision.
Alex Blackburn is accepting public input about “The Vista Mine”:
Mail: ATTN: Alex Blackburn, St. Croix County Government Center, 1101 Carmichael Rd, Hudson, WI 54016
“The Vista Mine” application is available for public viewing at:
Planning and Development Office, Government Building at 1101 Carmichael road, Hudson, WI.
WI Voices, Inc. has supplied excerpts from “Vista Mine” application:
A representative from Vista LLC informed WI Voices, Inc. that the online version of the application would not be made available to the public at this time. As an alternative, excerpts were chosen at the discretion of WI Voices, Inc. for reasons of public interest and also to increase the availability of information in our community.
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