About 200 people crowded into a meeting room in the basement of the Waupaca County Courthouse Thursday, Nov. 1, to voice their opinions regarding a proposed sand mine.
It was the first time the county Planning and Zoning Committee conducted a permit hearing at night. It began at 6:30 p.m. and continued until after 1 a.m. as dozens of people spoke out in favor or in opposition to the mine.
AF Gelhar Mining Co. has proposed opening a silica sand mine in the town of Union on a 160-acre site. Waupaca Foundry would be the mine’s primary customer.
The county must grant a conditional use permit in order for the mine to open in the town of Union.
The committee did not vote on the matter Nov. 1 and a meeting has yet to be scheduled.
This week, the County Post will report on the comments made by those who oppose the mine. Next week, the paper will examine the arguments presented in favor of the mine.
Opponents of the mine discussed its potential impact on the environment, public health, property values and the local economy.
“I have resided at this location for 36 years,” said Clyde Tellock, whose home is directly north of the proposed sand mine. “The land was given to me by my father and he built my home.”
Noting the beautiful view he currently has to the south of his home and the nearby nature preserve, Tellock asked that a 1,320-foot buffer be required along the northern side of the proposed mining site.
Tellock, who is the Waupaca County treasurer and the town of Union clerk, also raised questions about the sand mine’s potential effect on tax revenues.
“All of the equipment used in the mining operation is exempt from taxation. AF Gelhar at its current location has assessed value of around $300,000 on the personal property tax roll. That is only equivalent to approximately two new homes in value,” Tellock said. “The land is still taxed at its use value, which is very low due to the crops on it. Only the active area would be taxed at a somewhat higher value.”
Tellock said the sand sold from the mine would not generate either county or state sales taxes.
“Any value that might be added to the tax roll at this site most probably would be offset by the reduction in values of properties nearby,” Tellock said.
In addition to his propety value dropping and the loss of the wooded scenery to the south of his property, Tellock said he was concerned about how the sand mine, which plans to install a high-capacity well, would affect the water table and his own well.
“My well is 204 feet deep and only has about a five-gallon per minute output. My pump is located at the bottom of the well for that reason,” Tellock said.
Elward Engle, a retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources naturalist, said he was concerned that the proposed mine is located adjacent to Tellock’s Hill Woods,
Calling the 54-acre natural area, “one of the most rare places in Wisconsin,” Engle described the old-growth woods as having a large number of trees in excess of 100-feet tall and a wide variety of wildflowers, such as orchards and trout lilies.
“These places are set aside as a remnant of what the earth’s surface was like centuries ago. It will help us learn how we ought to manage land today,” Engle said. “We need a large buffer to protect that land.”
“I grew up on Tellock Hill,” said Ramona Dahnke. “My parents were born and raised on that land, My Grandmother Tellock founded and homesteaded that land. There is no place more beautiful in Waupaca County than Tellock Hill.”
Dahnke said she and her husband returned to the area she always considered home after they retired. They wanted to experience the clean air, the scenic landscapes and the quiet solitude that she had known as a child.
“I’m asking you to really consider the human element,” Dahnke said, addressing the zoning committee. “Consider what you are taking down. You are taking down a hill that has been there since the glaciers came through 10,000 years ago.”
Dahnke said she was also concerned about the mine’s impact on the area groundwater.
“The mine is proposing to blast 30 to 40 feet below the water table,” Dahnke said. “That is definitely going to open up the possibility of contamination of our groundwater.”
Shd asked the committee to consider an independent hydrological study of the effects of blasting and a the mine’s high-capacity well on the aquifer prior to granting a permit.
Doctors raise health concerns
Jane Peterson, of Iola, presented a petition signed by 33 Waupaca County doctors and nurses, asking the zoning committee to deny any more sand mine permits until more research has been conducted on the health risks of exposure to crystalline silica.
“Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) has been recognized by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as meeting the criteria of a hazardous air contaminant,” Peterson said.
Peterson pointed to studies showing the negative health effects of silica exposure in the workplace include silicosis, lung cancer, emphysema, bronchitis, cor pulmonale, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome and glomerular renal disease.
She also noted that there have been insufficient studies of how silica affects those who are exposed to it outside the workplace.
“We urge the commission to place a sand mine moratorium in Waupaca County until data, which is currently being collected, can be analyzed. At present, there have been no established standards beyond industrial exposure, and, therefore, safe levels of RSC for infants, the elderly and those with already existing health concerns are unknown,” Peterson said.
She then compared the current state of research on the health effects of crystalline silica exposure to the early stages of research on asbestos certain pesticides, radioactive materials and second-hand tobacco smoke.
“There is a common thread in each case,” Peterson said.
The possibility of risk was recognized but the substance was not regulated because agencies assumed that only the people with the strongest exposure were at risk. Then, as greater numbers of people were exposed over long periods of time, the hazard became increasingly apparent.
“Due to this delay, there was needless loss of life and health,” Peterson said.
In Chippewa County, 100 health care professionals petitioned the DNR to revise its existing regulations regarding respirable crystalline silica emissions (RCS) coming from sand mines.
The Chippewa County petition asked the DNR to set standards for the level of RCS exposure by the general public.
Another boom and bust gold rush?
“Sand mining in Wisconsin is spreading like a gold rush,” said John Ashby, of Manawa. “The demand for frac sand has increased exponentially in the past two to three years.”
Ashby said Wisconsin has 87 mining operations involved in the extraction of frac sand, about 30 processing facilities operating or under construction and 20 more frac sand mines in the planning stages.
“They are almost never turned down,” Ashby said, regarding citizens’ inability to persuade town and county governments to slow down the rapid development of the mines.
Ashby asked the zoning committee to consider what is happening in the western part of Wisconsin, where most of the frac sand mines have been established, as well as the rest of the country where they are “trading mountains for moonscapes.”
“Mountaintop removal and the dumping of wastes and debris is the greatest earth-moving activity in the United States. To date, 502 peaks have been leveled throughout Appalachia. These mined mountaintops encompass more than 1.1 million acres, an area nearly the size of Delaware,” Ashby said, adding that Waupaca County is in the early stages of similar environmental devastation.
“Which hill will be next? Bunker Hill? Marion Hill? Krause’s Woods Hill? Kutchenriter Hill? This is changing the character of what Wisconsin is,” Ashby said.
Ashby said the DNR no longer has the staffing levels or the authority to monitor and ensure that sand mines in Wisconsin comply with public health and environmental regulations for high capacity wells, groundwater levels, groundwater contamination and silica sand dust.
Tonya Wazinski, from the town of Little Wolf, questioned the analysis provided by the Waupaca County Economic Development Corporation regarding the mine’s economic impact.
“They’ve been wrong before,” Wazinski said. “That’s the same organization that said the LeRoy Butler dealership was going to be tremendous.”
Wazinski said the sand mine and its trucks operating 24 hours per day, seven days a week would have a negative impact on local businesses, the tourism industry and real estate values and remove farmland from production.
Wasinski also questioned the sand mine’s importance to the foundry.
“The worry is that the foundry may lay off people or they may shut their doors. Really? There’s nothing to indicate that’s true,” Wazinski said, noting that KPS Capital Partners invested $362 million in a leveraged buyout of the foundry. “They are not going to close their doors due to the price of sand.”
Coleen Phelan and her family live about four miles from Tellock’s Hill and the proposed sand mine. She described the current rapid growth in sand mining as a boom that could go bust.
“Being sold a mine with the promise of an economic boom but not feeling secure that those jobs, that boom, will stick because this industry is so unstable, doesn’t sit well with me. We could be trading away our current residents’ peace, future tourism and sound environment,” Phelan said.
Phelan said opposition to the sand mine was not simply an issue of the economy versus the environment, pointing to the economic losses that neighbors would experience when their property values plummeted after the mine began operating.
“What about understanding all the risks to ensure the taxpayers aren’t left with a mess of the roads, on the land and in the water and air to pay for? What about the loss of property taxes from every neighbor to this mine and those along the truck routes or the potential health costs?” Phelan said.
For many people in the area, whose primary asset is their farm or home, the the devaluation of their property will be “devastating,” Phelan said.
“Cashing in on the sand boom, while it lasts, is at the expense of the quality of life of more than a dozen families. Harming the general welfare, safety and economic prosperity of these people is in direct opposition of our comprehensive plan,” she said.