A controversial frac sand processing plant and rail transfer facility planned near Cochrane-Fountain City School (C-FC) was unanimously voted down last week by the Buffalo County Board of Adjustments.
The development would have resulted in up to 500 semi truckloads of sand coming to the site daily. The sand would then have been processed inside the closed plant and loaded onto trains on a looped track. The facility would have been 1,250 feet from the school.
An overwhelming turnout at the public hearing, which lasted well into the night, brought many in opposition to the proposal, including C-FC School Board members, neighbors and a slew of attorneys. Many of those in opposition argued that the project required a zoning change to move ahead, rather than the two conditional use permits sought by the landowners and Glacial Sands, a Texas frac sand company.
The board denied the permits after six hours of testimony, with board member Ron Kazmierczak calling the proposal “totally incompatible” with adjacent land uses. He also pointed out that it went against the Milton Township comprehensive land use plan.
“This land is too beautiful to throw away for the greed of a few,” said James Grant of Bluff Siding, a thought that was echoed throughout the public testimony given Tuesday.
Claire Waters said that Buffalo County farmers have a good track record in being stewards of the land. Glacier Sands, she said, is a new company, and does not. “My family has been in Buffalo County since 1853,” she said, adding that she can be found at her Fountain City address, not, like the sand company, at a postal drop box in Chippewa Falls.
Warren Bechly said he farms land adjacent to the development site, adding it is in the flood plain. “Back in ‘65, we were all under water,” he said. He added he didn’t understand the sense in building a multimillion dollar plant in an area that is prone to flooding, and remembered a time when he was forbidden to even build a hay barn there. “Use common sense,” he said.
“Trust is an issue,” said Jo Ressie, C-FC School Board member, who joined the rest of the school board members in speaking against the project. Board members said they had tried to work with Glacial Sands representatives on traffic and other safety concerns, but were disappointed when company representatives refused to guarantee any safety measures in writing.
Many testified that the proposal had divided neighbors, friends and families. Milton Township resident Laura Madsen said the entire process has been divisive, and asked that the board deny the application rather than table it and drag out the fighting. People’s opposition, she said, had them spending their own money on attorneys, web sites and direct mail fliers. “Stop the bleeding,” she said.
Sheila Litscher, a neighbor on Kamrowski Road, said her family had suffered many sleepless nights worrying about how their rural neighborhood might be affected by the industrial proposal. “This may just be business to Glacier Sands, but for me and my family, it’s very personal,” she said.
Jeanee Franz delivered more than 623 signatures on a petition against the project, and said she feared for the safety of the 670 students and 80 staff members at the school. Road safety was a concern, as was the fire potential of industrial propane at the site, she said, adding that if the development was approved, it would set a precedent, and more large industrial sand developments would come.
Many people testified that they feared the project could pose water contamination issues or even lower the water table, and that property values for adjacent homes would suffer greatly. “My clients stand to lose, if not 100 percent of the value [of their homes], darn close to it,” said one attorney representing neighbors.
Most who spoke in opposition to the project discussed safety issues concerning the added truck traffic near C-FC School. Several doctors testified that diesel fumes, along with particulate sand dust, could aggravate asthma and cause other health issues for kids. Dr. Todd Mahr, a Pediatric Allergist at Gundersen Lutheran, said inhaling diesel and other particulate matter increases hospital visits, reduces lung function, increases missed days of school and can lead to death. He is the chair of the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Lung Association, and said its parent national association is seeking anti-idling regulation for school buses to reduce the amount of diesel fumes kids are exposed to. “Fine particulates can cause serious health effects, even in low concentrates,” he said.
Glacier Sands’ stance
Glacier Sands representatives said that they had just secured a contract for the purchase of some adjacent land that could allow for a bridge over Bensel Pond, which could move trucks to the site before they passed the C-FC School entrance on Highway 35.
Wayne Steinmetz, Glacial Sands Public Relations representative, said company leaders had been listening to and responding to neighbors’ concerns about the project. The proposed bridge over Bensel Pond was a way to mitigate some of the traffic concerns, he said, adding that the board had asked them to look at other truck routing options that could help protect the school.
“We want to do the right thing,” he said. “We want to be part of this community; we want to be able to deliver economic development to Buffalo County.” He asked that the board table the permit request so that the company would have more time to explore ways to mitigate neighbors’ concerns.
Ryan Thomas, of Glacier Sands, said the project would include about 30 permanent jobs at the site, not including trucking jobs or other contract positions, which are often hired locally, too, he said.
When Kazmierczak made a motion to deny the CUP for the project, he admitted that if sand were to continue to be mined in Buffalo County, some sort of rail hub or barge loading facility would be necessary. Buffalo County has approved six new frac sand mines in recent months, none of which are in operation yet.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Glacier Sands Manager Ike Thomas said he was surprised at the vote, and had figured the board would table the CUP request in order to get more information. “We really don’t know at this point,” he said, when asked what the company would do in light of the rejected permits.
When asked whether the denial would affect related mines that could have supplied the processing plant and rail hub with sand, Thomas said those mine plans could be threatened, too. “They put a lot of jobs in jeopardy, there’s no doubt,” he said.
A public hearing on one of those related mine proposals is set for August 9 at 5:30 p.m. at the Alma Area School Gymnasium, S1618 State Road 35 in Alma. The mine is proposed in the Town of Montana on 1,389 acres. According to Glacier Sands reps, about 450 acres would be mined on the property for more than 40 years, and five to ten acres would be stripped at a time.
The wash plant at the site would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would include about 190 trucks per day leaving the site. Trucks would have taken the sand to the proposed rail transfer facility, which was voted down by the Board of Adjustments.