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Last ditch efforts fail to derail frac sand mine

(From left) Joey Odendahl, Amanda Taylor, Mary Alice Calhoun, Rebecca Bonesteel and Julie Augesen protest outside the Glenwood City Community Center prior to Monday night’s council meeting. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)

“I pray that we make the right decision here tonight,” said Scott Teigen in his appeal to more than 50 Glenwood City residents packed into the community center, many in a last ditch effort to dissuade the city council from approving a direct annexation petition standing in the way of opening a frac sand mining operation on Teigen’s land a half mile from a public school and a nursing home. Teigen, and fellow landowner Robert Crosby Jr., whose properties would host the new operation, got their wish Monday night when the Glenwood City Council voted 4-2 to approve their petition for direct annexation, removing the last obstacle in the path of Wisconsin’s newest frac sand mine.

It was another contentious meeting as one resident after another stood up and made their case for or against the mining opportunity.

Matt Main said he was not against the mine but was against the location being so close to the school. At a cost of $6,000 for every student who leaves the district or open enrolls elsewhere, he felt the cost was too high.

“This is not the place, it’s way too close, our kids are too important. How many of our friends and family members have to move away or go to other schools before we start to really realize the impact of this decision?,” Main said.

Resident Cheryl Merril spoke from her background in medicine when she likened the experience suffered by victims of asbestos to the threat presented by silica sand. She asked the council to reconsider its decision in light of the potential risk down the road, “What will we say in 30 years when our children look back and ask, ‘why when they knew did they continue?’”

John Logghe, a school board member and grandparent of students enrolled at the school said, “I have no qualms about their health and safety. In my mind I cannot see a danger to our students.”

Resident Judi Holmquist sees the mine as an opportunity to bring her husband back home from his job in North Dakota. The mother of six students said she was not afraid for them and felt the benefits promised by Vista Sand were worth the risk. “I believe the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will protect me and my family. Are the jobs worth the risk? I strongly believe they are. We can bring these qualified people home who have to go all the way to North Dakota and Montana to get a job.”

Local real estate agent Jennifer Kuehl said she’d been following sales trends. Even with the economy generally on the rise, she’s seen families leaving town and pulling their kids out of school.

“The mine is in direct violation of the town’s comprehensive plan,” said school board member Charlotte Heimer. She claimed paperwork submitted to the state for their review of the proposed annexation did not accurately reflect the views of all of the board members, since only two of them were involved in filing the papers. “Only two board members, one of the landowners and his attorney were the only people to even see the paperwork,” Heimer said.

In a very concise mayor’s report, Mayor John Larson, held up the help wanted ads from the Trempealeau County Times and said, “This is what a mine can do for a community.”

Larson went on to dismiss a letter addressed to the board from St. Croix County Health and Human Services requesting that the city delay any decision regarding the mine for 90 days to allow for further study, as nothing more than an effort to delay the process.

“Where have they been the last two years?” Larson said.

In the end, sentiment for and against the mine was nearly even, the vote was not.

School District Superintendent Tim Emholtz again took center stage as he briefly summarized the history of the district’s efforts over the last two years to hammer out a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the district and Vista Sand, which would protect the interests of students and staff. With a hint of relief in his voice he announced that attorneys for the school district and Vista Sand had reached an agreement, which the school board approved at its May 7 meeting. He reported that a number of issues had been resolved in the agreement including blasting regulations, truck traffic restrictions and air quality monitoring, which will be active 24 hours a day while the mine is operating for the first year. If air quality consistently meets EPA standards the first year, monitoring will be reduced each succeeding year as long as the standards continue to be met. The board would have the right to randomly check quality during the ensuing years. In what he characterized as “groundbreaking,” the MOU establishes a Technical Evaluation Panel (TEP) consisting of experts designated independently by the school board, the city council and by Vista Sand. The panel would be empowered to look at any issues during ongoing operation of the mine throughout the 30-year term of the contract and would have the authority to involve the DNR or any other regulating body to remedy issues affecting the school or community.

“The district held firm on these issues, and I would like to thank Vista for compromising. What remains is for the board to include the completed MOU in the existing pre-annexation agreement. By including our issue with your issues, we can make a stronger agreement,” Emholtz said.

Terry Dunst, attorney for the city, recommended that the council include the MOU in the annexation agreement stating, “The city will then have the right (to apply terms of the MOU) without the obligation to do so. The city will retain its discretion,” Dunst said.

Teigen’s prayer already having been answered, the board voted unanimously to amend its pre-annexation agreement with Vista Sand to include the MOU.