By Ivan Raconteur
Residents and commissioners in favor of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed gravel mining expansion in Southside Township failed to convince the majority of the Wright County Board that the study would solve any problems, and the board voted against requiring the study.
The vote, taken during Tuesday’s board meeting, was 3-2, with commissioners Jack Russek, Pat Sawatzke, and Board Chair Elmer Eichelberg in favor, and commissioners Dick Mattson and Karla Heeter opposed.
An EIS is not mandatory, because the area in question is less than 160 acres, but the board could order a discretionary EIS.
The proposal is for expansion of an existing gravel mining and washing operation north of 80th Street and east of Quinn Avenue Northwest in Southside Township.
The plan includes mining 91 acres of a 160-acre site during a 10-year period.
Environmental health officer Bill Stephens said the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) that was completed for the project revealed no obvious evidence that any significant environmental effects will result from the proposed project.
“With all of the research we have done, and with proper mitigation factors, this could be regulated within the EAW,” Stephens said.
Some residents have asked the county to require an EIS.
Resident John Swanson expressed concern about potential harm to the environment.
“If an EIS is done, that should prove whether there will be potential harm in the future. The danger of not doing an EIS is that it will be too late if problems are found in the future,” Swanson said.
He also expressed concern about the depth of the proposed mining relative to the water table.
Stephens said that, rather than relying on information provided by the applicant, Annandale Rock Products, he obtained well logs from local wells.
“There is about 15 feet from the bottom of the mine to the average groundwater depth,” Stephens said.
Addressing the request for an EIS, Russek said he is on the planning commission, and there are things the planning commission can do when it issues a conditional use permit.
“There are a lot of conditions we can put on (a permit), and we do take these concerns seriously,” Russek said.
Planning and Zoning Administrator Tom Salkowski said some issues that concern neighbors of a mining operation are often aesthetic, rather than environmental.
“There are questions beyond environmental questions that we have to look at. There are people who would say gravel pits are ugly, truck traffic on the roads is a pain, and noise is a nuisance, but these are not environmental issues,” Salkowski said.
The primary reason given for not doing an EIS was that it would not necessarily resolve the concerns of the residents.
“An EIS, like an EAW, is not a regulatory document. The findings still go back to the planning commission for decisions,” Stephens said.
“We don’t see the need to go through an EIS. We don’t believe that we would learn a whole lot more than we know already, but we are here to ask you to make a decision. We are not here to tell you what to do,” Salkowski commented.
“I’m having a hard time believing that an EIS is going to solve all of our problems. People can still come back and object to a gravel pit,” he added.
Sawatzke asked about the history of Annandale Rock Products and the status of reclamation of other gravel pits in the area.
Tim Ferrell, the company’s vice president, said Annandale Rock Products produces 30 or 40 different products, while many of its competitors are asphalt contractors.
Ferrell said this is why the company maintains so many pits and stockpiles around the area.
“I feel we have made a great effort to address both environmental and quality-of-life issues,” Ferrell said.
He explained that the company has agreed to keep operations north of a bluff and tree line along the shore of Lake Sylvia, and has agreed to build a berm along 80th Street to screen the operation from the road.
Ferrell also said no crushing or washing operation will be done at the proposed site, and the company will install a three-quarters of a mile long conveyor to move materials to its main facility.
Sawatzke said his main concern was reclamation of the pits after mining operations are complete.
“Creating moonscapes all over the area is not a good cumulative effect,” Sawatzke said.
Russek said the planning commission would require a $100,000 bond to ensure that the site is reclaimed.
He explained that the planning commission did not always require this, but has been doing so for the past few years.
“The bond gives us leverage to see that reclamation is done,” Russek said.
“I guarantee that $100,000 would not touch the cost of reclaiming a 90-acre site,” Mattson said.
In the end, Mattson was not able to convince the rest of the board to support requiring an EIS.
“Some of the issues are things that are dealt with by the planning commission. What concerns me the most is un-reclaimed gravel pits, a nuisance that goes on after the resource has been mined, but I’m not sure that an EIS handles these issues,” Sawatzke said.
He added that he shared Mattson’s concern about the bond amount, but said this could be increased by the planning commission.
Russek said if neighbors have any special concerns or requests, they should bring them to the planning commission.
Weed management area concept approved
The board authorized Agriculture Inspector Ken Johnson and Kerry Saxton of the soil and water conservation district to pursue a grant to create a cooperative weed management area to combat invasive species such as buckthorn and wild parsnip.
These plants are a growing concern for area residents.
“I get a lot of calls from landowners asking ‘what can I do?’” Johnson said.
The program would be a cooperative effort including multiple agencies, departments, and possibly other interested groups, such as townships and landowners.
“We have been working on buckthorn control for the past few years,” Parks Administrator Marc Mattice said. “Last year, we spent about $8,000 on noxious weed control, and about half of that was on buckthorn.”
He added that the parks department has started to see wild parsnip in some county parks, as well.
Saxton, Johnson, and the commissioners expressed concern that if something is not done soon, it may be too late.
Saxton said he would like to see the efforts limited to wild parsnip control.
“To take on buckthorn without a good group in place is a losing proposition. There is just too much of it,” Saxton commented.
He explained that, while wild parsnip has long been a problem in the south, it is fairly new to this area, and seems to be spreading along transportation corridors.
The grants are administered by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. Applicants can receive up to $70,000 to help with the implementation of weed control programs.
Saxton said if the county included some matching funds, it would increase the chance that Wright County would receive a grant.
The board agreed to commit $10,000 in matching funds from the professional services budget to support the formation of a cooperative weed management area.
“If we are able to stop it before it gets out of control, $10,000 would be well spent,” Russek said.
Saxton said if the county is successful in obtaining a grant, he would like to see most of the money used for spraying the invasive species.
Russek said public education should also be part of the process.
Johnson said he would like to try a test parcel somewhere in the county park system to find the most effective methods for buckthorn control.
No additional staff will be hired at this time.
Saxton said the proposed weed control area could be “an organization for the future,” and, as it grows, it could help the county combat invasive species.
Friday, March 14 is the deadline for grant applications, and funds are expected to be available to successful applicants sometime in April.
Odds and ends
In other business, the board:
• renewed the joint powers agreement for Central Minnesota Jobs and Training Services.
• scheduled a public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 9:45 a.m. regarding a non-metro regional park grant application for the proposed Bertram Chain of Lakes purchase.
• heard an update from Bill Swing of the information technology department regarding a request for proposal for a voice and data system for the jail/law enforcement center. The board approved a proposal deadline of Monday, Feb. 18 at 4 p.m., a proposal opening date of Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 9:30 a.m., and a contract award date of Tuesday, Feb. 26.
• approved a recommendation from the building committee to direct Purchasing Administrator Craig Hayes to obtain quotes for two additional gates and fencing for the county impound area at a cost not-to-exceed $5,000. The gates are needed to allow for more efficient snow removal.