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County's HHS Board aims to delay frac sand mine annexation

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The St. Croix County Health & Human Services (HHS) Board voted 5-3 on Monday, May 5, to advise the Glenwood City Council to delay for 90 days its annexation of land Vista Sand is interested in for a frac sand mine.

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After nearly 50 minutes of discussion and input from county staff members and counsel, board members Christopher Babbitt, Paulette Anderson, Shaela Leibfried, Howard Novotny and Deb Rasmussen voted in favor of the advisory. Leon Berenschot, Chris Kilber and Roger Larson voted no. Lisa Ramsay was absent. 

“Over the last couple weeks we have received some questions with regard to frac sand. After some work internally, we felt like it was a good idea to give this board a report from a public health perspective,” said HHS Director Fred Johnson.

At issue is a potential agreement between the City of Glenwood City and Vista Sand to have land annexed into the city for a frac sand mine. Johnson indicated that the board may decide whether to issue a public health moratorium on frac sand mining similar to the one issued last year in Trempealeau County.

Interim Public Health Officer Deb Lindemann pointed to a few concerns her department had with the agreement, including monitoring fugitive dust from the mine that can cause illnesses, including the chronic respiratory disease silicosis. She also said there were concerns with whether the groundwater in the area would continue to be safe.

Lindemann took issue with the fact that according to the agreement, Vista itself would handle the monitoring and report to a city engineer. The lack of an independent person or clear chain of custody for the air monitoring were cause for concern.

St. Croix County Environmental Health Specialist Ed Thurman also had concerns about particulate matter (PM) levels.

“Silica must be kept below 3 micrograms per cubic meter,” Thurman said.

He said the only way to measure that effectively is with lab machinery that measures down to PM 2.5, but the Vista agreement says it would monitor only to PM 4.

“I don’t think they’re monitoring exactly what we need to know to keep the community safe,” Thurman said.

Thurman also pointed out that even though air dust monitoring is in the agreement, there were no consequences included in the document in the event that dust levels are high.

From there, the discussion free-wheeled among board members into topics ranging from economic benefits of the mine, effects on the transportation system, noise from blasting in the mine and other peripheral topics.

The county’s attorney advised the board that Vista’s plan of having the land annexed into a city is part of a strategy aimed at taking regulatory control away from the county. Apparently, the county can regulate mines in unincorporated areas within the county, but not in cities or villages. The attorney also indicated that establishing a moratorium based on the county’s broad public health authority would likely be unenforceable because it is unclear whether the mine would pose a clear health hazard.

That’s why the board opted to simply advise the Glenwood City Council of its wish to slow down the annexation process until the county has time to determine whether such a hazard actually exists.

Before voting against the motion, Berenschot said it didn’t make sense to study the matter for 90 days, and that it was unlikely the county could come to any conclusions in that timeframe that Vista and Glenwood City haven’t already come to after studying the issue for years.

The Glenwood City Council is expected to address the Vista Sand annexation issue at its May 12 meeting, and Johnson said county staff members would be present at the meeting.

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Micheal Foley
Micheal Foley joined RiverTown Multimedia in July 2013 and serves as editor at the New Richmond News. In the past he has worked at several news outlets including Patch.com in Hudson, Wis., the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif., the Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire, Wis., and the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn. He began his career as a Marine Corps journalist. He served as a reporter and photographer in Okinawa, Japan, and editor of the base newspaper at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, Calif. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin–River Falls.
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