Landowners comment on proposed mining rezoning

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The committee for mining impact research heard from landowners at their recent meeting in Elkader. The next meeting is scheduled for March 17. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

The third meeting of the group studying the impact of mine expansion in Clayton County was held Thursday, March 3, at the Clayton County Office Building in Elkader. Committee members Susi Nehls, Anne Osmondson, Tom Blake, Roy Blair, Jack Knight and Mike Finnegan were in attendance and participated in discussions with the four landowners petitioning for zoning changes to allow mining on their properties.

M.J. Smith, representing the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, first reviewed the grant agreement for the mine reserve expansion study, outlining the scope of their task. “Essentially you’re carrying out the grant agreement with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque,” said Smith. “The foundation presents the grant with several important standards for community engagement in mind,” said Smith, listing validity and reliability of the study as top priority. “In 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, people will look back and be able to see how your recommendations were arrived at and that they could be trusted,” Smith suggested.

The group’s deliverables are guided by a process that should include creating a list of concerns, a menu of conditions or solutions to address each concern, and a meeting of public commentary on the final report before making recommendations to the county planning and zoning committee. Grant funds may be used to cover hiring independent experts for discussion or sampling. 

Later in the meeting representatives from the families of each of the landowners requesting rezoning for proposed mine expansion were invited to comment. In attendance were Larry and Gwen Bries of Purple Cow Dairy, Leo and Kathy Wille with Daryl Wille, Frank Bries, and Matt McLane and Mike Mohning on behalf of landowner Barbara Mohning.

Knight opened the conversation by acknowledging that the landowners’ concerns are similar to the concerns of the neighbors and the county. None of the landowners are in favor of above-ground mining. Leo Wille agreed, “We enjoy the sights just like everybody else. Our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents were all on this land. Obviously they did a pretty good job conserving it because everybody wants to move into our area, so I’m not going to allow somebody to come in and destroy it after all these hundreds of years,” he explained. 

Daryl Wille, whose farm was rezoned for mining four years ago, told committee members he has had no problems with anything on his lease agreement with Pattison Sand, and the company is acting as promised. There is no surface mining allowed according to the agreement, and if a vent shaft is eventually installed it cannot be in the tillable part of Wille’s farm, cannot damage harvestable trees, and must be a certain distance from building sites. If the vent is removed, it must be filled in and returned to a condition that meets his satisfaction. 

None of the landowners reported any problems with their wells. Mohning told committee members, “We have probably the closest water well to a mine, and we’ve had grade A milk sold. They have to test the water all the time and we’ve never had a problem or a shortage of water, it’s always been good.” McLane added, “The mine’s been there for how many years and we have had no issues, no sinkholes. There are 200 feet of limestone between the surface and the mine, so there would be no trouble building on top.” 

Nearby Purple Cow Dairy also produces grade A milk, for which water is tested for bacteria, and were happy to provide copies of results from a recent water test. Pattison Sand conducts water testing for nitrates, volatile organic compounds, e-coli, arsenic, chloroform, and chloride to establish a benchmark. Those chemicals are specifically requested for testing by a hydrologist because mining activities could effect their levels.  

“Some changes are related to too much water being drawn out of a well,” said Knight, noting that low water can raise arsenic levels and higher lead levels may follow. 

“What people need to understand is this rezoning isn’t to increase production – it’s to increase how long we’re here,” said John Hendrix of Pattison Sand. “People think because we’re rezoning we’re going to double productions. That’s not what it is. There won’t be twice as much water usage or twice as many trucks on the roads.” 

Gwen Bries, who with her husband is considering making their farm organic, shared her reasoning for supporting mining activities. “If we want our children to stay in this area – where they were born and raised and enjoyed – to have a good life they have to have a good job so they can support their wives and kids and keep the schools going.” The Brieses and other landowners emphasized the importance of local industry rather than dependence on tourism to keep the communities in Clayton County thriving. 

“Tourism maybe brings money in for the city people, but we’ve had people from other countries stop and take pictures of the beautiful farmland. It’s a benefit for the community that we’ve provided. Now it seems we’re getting pushed because we want to make a little bit, and it doesn’t seem right because we’re paying the taxes,” Frank Bries pointed out.

McLane noted that Frank Bries and Leo Wille have spent time completing cement work at Pattison Sand, and McLane himself has worked at Pattison for eight years. “I would say the group here knows what’s going on at Pattison better than any other group of people. We all see it firsthand. We’re all involved in it enough to not be surprised by anything else going on down the road.”

Pattison has a road that passes through the Mohning property and according to their contract must keep the road dust-coated. “They went a step above and seal-coated it,” said McLane, whose family has raised no concerns about blowing dust. “We’re conscious about it as well, and we’re trying to be stewards as well.” McLane stated that the family’s contract includes a clause that only Pattison Sand could use the road, so that another company doesn’t have access. 

“This is our way to keep an established company with resources here. I think we’re very fortunate to have a company like that here that’s going to have to stay because he can’t just pull up and go to some other country or some other town,” Leo Wille spoke up. “We’re trying to allow him to stay here and have a future.”

Chairman Finnegan was encouraged by the conversation. “Pattison couldn’t have picked better people for the conservation of the land,” he said. “I think the landowners are being very cautious and conservative and conservation minded, and should be applauded.” 

The next meeting of the committee is scheduled for March 17, and the public is invited to deliver written comments to the group during the last 15 minutes of the meeting.

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