Pattison rezoning request tabled for further research

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Guttenberg Mayor Russ Loven was among many area residents who urged further research into the economic and environmental effects of additional frac sand mines at last Tuesday's planning and zoning commission meeting. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

Well over 60 people gathered in Elkader for a Clayton County Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8. The commission heard comments from Pattison employees and concerned property owners over the potential rezoning of land along Great River Road from agricultural to heavy industrial for the purpose of underground mining, processing, storing and shipment of silica sand and its byproducts. 

Planning and Zoning Commission members present included chairman Allan Troester, Mike Finnegan, Kari Friedlein, Mike Tucker, Anne Osmundson, Mary Klink, Bruce Kann, James Baker, Rebecca Spielbauer and staff supervisor Janet Ott.

The 726 acres in question are owned by Larry Bries of Purple Cow Dairy, Frank Bries, Barbara Mohning, and Leo and Kathy Wille. Kyle Pattison, managing partner, introduced the proposal. “It’s time that we should start setting up additional land to mine underneath in the next few years. Having a significant amount of land set out ahead helps us do a better job of planning to do the mining in a more safe, efficient manner. At this time we have 15-20 years of reserves, and some of that is planned to be mined in the near future.”

After Pattison introduced the project, the floor was opened to community members for comments and concerns. Many questions were raised and were addressed by Pattison representatives before the committee ultimately decided to table its recommendation to the county board of supervisors pending further research. 

Area resident Bob Knudtson was the first to speak, questioning the potential impact on shallow wells of Mississippi River Road homeowners and the planned location of underground mine vents on the proposed properties, due to his experiences with fumes and dust particles blasted from the mine into the air. 

Others who live near the current and proposed mining sites expressed similar concerns, including Jim Gau of Garnavillo, who asked whether there had been any environmental studies done on the impact of the potential project – especially with regard to water. Pattison responded that there have not been, and he sees no need for such a study. “St. Peter sandstone is a dry formation; water doesn’t run through it with any significance so I don’t think it’ll have an impact on the water flowage in the general area. I’ve walked through the mine myself and there’s very little water that flows through it.” 

Jim Turner, owner of an acreage near the mine, inquired about water tests in Bridgeport, Wis., where Pattison has another mine. A Pattison representative responded that one sample per year is done at each well. According to the representative, excluding issues that existed before the mining began, no significant changes have occurred over the past three years and over half of the homeowners have opted out of yearly testing because they haven’t noticed any changes in their water. 

Guttenberg Mayor Russ Loven spoke on behalf of the city’s tourism industry, as the proposed mining would occur along a National Scenic Byway where trail development could be affected by heavy truck traffic if sand is shipped along Great River Road. 

Jane Reagan, of Allamakee County and the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, also voiced concerns about the effects of sand mining on tourism.  “This area is the third most traveled-to river destination in the world. People like this protected area... If you take away the incentive for the visitors to stop here, the dollars that don’t get spent have a significant impact. Allamakee County earns $2850 per resident in tourism dollars and has 200 jobs in the visitor industry – our board of supervisors understood that and it’s why they chose to protect what they have.” Reagan, an insurance agent, also stated that silica sand is an exclusion in general liability policies for municipalities and landowners.

Karen Erger, a construction lawyer who owns a vacation home near the mines with her husband, raised her fears about the proposed rezoning. “We’ve invested in Clayton County, and we came here because we love this place. I want to make sure that place that I bought stays beautiful,” she said. “I’m worried about the stewardship of this area and the impact on this home I’m so proud to have. I understand the want for jobs and for silica, but I need you to understand how this impacts us. I’m concerned that I’m going to now be living in an area that’s known mostly as a spoiled river bluff, with mine violations and an increasing industrial complex right near my home.”

Edie Ehlert, with Crawford Stewardship Project, also urged the commission to perform a thorough and extensive study. “What you do here does affect us in Wisconsin – it affects us all along the river corridor,” she said. 

Concerned citizen Brenda Tackman voiced her apprehension when she questioned Pattison on whether large sand piles would begin appearing along Great River Road as they have in other areas, and what Pattison will do to keep that sand from blowing. “I like looking at trees and seeing the environment and the deer. I don’t like looking at piles of sand,” she said frankly. 

Pattison responded, “We are processing about 8000 tons a day, and on average we keep two days worth of sand on that big pile. What we are doing is applying a dust control device over top of the sand to minimize the sand blowing.” Representatives conceded that the dust control device, which forms a crust over sand piles, is not always effective because the sand is often being moved. According to Pattison, sand at the proposed site would be stored and transported underground via conveyors, and thus wouldn’t add to truck traffic or create unsightly piles.

Vic and Kay Vifian, who live in the center of what could become Pattison’s next mine, chose their 28-acre home in 1977 because of the scenic surrounding countryside. “The current mine is about 4000 feet east of our property. We have some inconveniences from the mine – noise, traffic – but my biggest fear is what could happen legally in the future,” Vic said during Tuesday night’s meeting. He and his wife expressed concerns that if the land is rezoned for heavy industrial use, then it could be used for any number of purposes in the years to come. 

“The zoning change not only allows the frac sand mining operation but opens the door to all kinds of other heavy industrial businesses that could possibly come. We are concerned about that, and we’re concerned about the fact that this is said to be underground, yet that’s how it started, to my knowledge, in Clayton. After difficulties were encountered that’s when the top of the hills came off and the open mining occurred,” Kay said, encouraging all the members of the planning and zoning commission to visit the site and view changes to the surrounding landscape. “I ask the board to consider the health and well being of people in the county… We’re deciding things that are going to affect your kids, your grandkids, and their grandkids. What legacy do you want to leave? I think it behooves us to be very careful about the decisions that we’re making. I would like to have you all think about whether you would like this in your backyard.”

Pattison’s safety director, Tim Adkins of Guttenberg, responded to many safety concerns based on his 40-year career in the mining industry. Adkins left his job in southern Illinois, where he and his wife had planned to retire, and relocated to Guttenberg after becoming displeased with the direction his previous employer was taking the company. “I’ve worked in the industry all my life and I can tell you, I won’t work for a bad player. That’s why I left the company I did: because their values were shifting. I shifted too, right on out, voluntarily. I can tell you from 40+ years of experience in the mining industry that the systems Pattison has in place are as good as I’ve ever seen anywhere in my entire career.”

Adkins responded to concerns raised by landowner Gary Sigwarth of the many safety violations, recent fire, a lawsuit from Consolidated Grain and Barge, and a 2008 death onsite, as well as a 2013 Wall Street Journal article pointing to the company’s 775 citations from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) – more than any other sand or gravel mine in the US.

“I pulled up some data myself today after reading that article. Since 2013, we’ve failed two of 40 samples,” said Adkins. “A failed sample means we were above the established PEL [permissible exposure limit, a measurement of silica sand in the air]. It doesn’t mean people are going to die. Pattison employees go to great lengths to engineer out problems; we have an aggressive monitoring program ourselves, we do our own laundering, and we have set our standard at half of what MSHA’s PEL is.” Pattison employees take pulmonary function tests as part of an entry physical when hired to establish a baseline, then are monitored yearly. Employees are also required to wear personal protective equipment in certain areas. 

The proposed rezoning would provide reserves for a need decades down the road. “In all honesty, this additional zoning will have, in the next 15-20 years, really zero impact,” Pattison told listeners. 

“Why rush into this? If this is such a long-term thing, why don’t we study it more?” asked Sigwarth, echoing a sentiment expressed by community members throughout the meeting. “There are so many people that really don’t even know that this is going on. If it’s such a great thing, why have the surrounding counties put moratoriums on any frac sand mining in their counties? We talk about Clayton and Allamakee Counties for tourism and outdoor activates. We have unique environmental features that took 200,000 years and a lack of glaciers to form. It’s a total annihilation of all those kinds of things for a short term, boom and bust industry… We need more time to look at it.”

The purpose of the Planning and Zoning Commission includes, among other things, the duty to secure safety from fire, flood, panic and other dangers; to lessen congestion on roads to protect public health and general welfare; to provide adequate light and air; to conserve the value of buildings and encourage the most appropriate use of land throughout the county in accordance with the comprehensive zoning ordinance.

Guttenberg resident M.J. Smith reminded the commission of those duties. “Your fellow commissioners in Allamakee and Winneshiek Counties took a very similar oath, and when they tackled this tough question they undertook economic, environmental, and sustainability studies so a community’s best interests were recommended. It would be my request that your recommendation to the board of supervisors would be that a similar study would be undertaken in your county.”

Tom Blake, who lives in Guttenberg and serves as the Allamakee County zoning administrator, helped with those studies. “First, I really would like to say that I like to see the economic development in the county, and Pattison has been a good company to work with. However, because of the vast range of concerns that are raised, I would ask you to take the time to study the impacts of this before taking action,” he said.

After the two-hour exercise in democracy, commissioner Mike Finnegan made a motion to table a recommendation to the board of supervisors and do more research into the questions raised at the meeting. All commissioners agreed they could see both sides of the equation and unanimously voted to table the issue. 

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