The Cochrane-Fountain City (C-FC) School District has hired specialized legal help in opposing the Glacier Sands truck-to-rail frac sand facility that is proposed to be located across from the school, and will ask Buffalo County to deny a rezoning request for the facility. According to school officials, the district's normal legal counsel has a conflict of interest: it prepared the corporate legal work for the would-be mining operation Seven Sands, which would ship sand to the Glacier Sands facility. The district's new, Minneapolis-based firm is experienced in fighting large sand facilities, Superintendent Tom Hiebert noted. The firm represented the school district of Glenwood City, Wis., in a battle against a proposed sand mine on 384 acres next to the school. Hiebert told the School Board last Wednesday that finding a law firm without a frac sand-related conflict of interest "is becoming very difficult to do."
Photo by Chris Rogers
Cochrane-Fountain City School and its new attorney will not be welcoming the school's potential neighbor: a frac sand terminal. Finding a law firm without frac sand-related conflict of interest was difficult, officials said.
The School Board and many parents and area residents are concerned that the hundreds of trucks hauling sand to the site each day will pose a safety hazard for school buses and student drivers, that the operation might pollute local air and water, and that it will diminish the beauty and appeal of the area.
"The farmers and everyone here should be able to mine all the sand they want to as long as they don't affect everyone else," said School Board member Jo Ressie. "But if they're going to be using this intersection, I just see this being the biggest bottleneck."
"I believe it is the school's responsibility to make sure that our kids and our staff are safe," said board member Karen Knospe. Referencing the concerns of some medical professionals for health affects from silica dust, she added, "I don't want our kids on the playground with masks on their faces."
Board President Ed Callahan said that the development would increase tax evaluations on local land, causing property taxes to spike.
"I think it's fair to just talk about the aesthetics of the thing," Callahan also stated. "We want a rich vibrant educational environment." He continued, "This is a scenic highway. When you leave you see the bluffs across the river. It's beautiful. That matters."
Just the perception that there are traffic hazards or air and water pollution is enough to damage the school, said board member Rita Greshik. "I've had 123 people call me" in opposition to the facility, she said. Some of them told her, "I'm not going to send my kid to school there if there's all this traffic and the buses have to drive in between." The aesthetics of the area affect enrollment, too, she argued. "It does affect our numbers if people don't think it's a nice place to live," Greshik said.
Land owner Bob Kamrowski, who agreed to sell his land for the transload facility, attended the meeting. In an interview afterward, he pointed out that schools in more populous parts of the state face busier roads without the same level of concern. "People are afraid of change and they're afraid of the unknown," Kamrowksi commented. When asked about parents threatening to pull children of out C-FC School en masse, Seven Sands landowner Dennis Bork said in the same interview, "I think it's a bluff." He added, "I don't think that they have a basis to say that this school is any less safe than a school down the road."
Bork argued that the School Board was neglecting the large number of its constituents that support the facility. Referring to Callahan's comments about the development increasing local taxes and reducing the school's state aid payments, Bork said, "I was disappointed to hear [the School Board] say that because this school should be encouraging people to come in from all over – growth."
Kamrowski came to the meeting to find out if the district was going to hire an attorney to fight the transload facility. "I was disgusted last time they hired a lawyer," he said. The district hired special legal help in its successful opposition to a 2012 bid to permit the facility. "I don't think my tax dollars should be used to fight what I'm trying to do," he said.
Some School Board members also expressed hesitancy about spending on the special attorney. "In the past I have been opposed to spending any more legal counsel money to fight the decisions that have been made," said Greshik, in apparent reference to challenging decisions in court. The school has to trust county officials; it is their responsibility to make the right decision, she said.
Ressie responded, "Sometimes you can't count on the other entities to be doing their job." Callahan pointed out that the district budgeted a special legal reserve for just this purpose. "I do think legal counsel is important for our administrator to get advice," said Knospe. "We talked about this; we'll keep [the cost] low, as low as we can."
"It's a balancing act of when do we involve him and when do we not," Hiebert said of the new attorney. "If we're going to do the things that you requested, we do need that legal help. Some things, we know, can potentially be long processes and can be drawn-out matters, so we want to be careful that we don't spend a lot up front on anything that may need ongoing attention."
Board member Steve Scharlau said it is worth noting "how incredibly costly this is to the school district." The district has spent $54,000 on attorney's fees "related to sand" since April 2012. Scharlau said that the burden is not only spending on special legal counsel, but also "your time, our time, and the distractions are incredible." Callahan agreed, the School Board is in a position where it must spend its time discussing its strategy for the County Board room instead of the class room. "Monitoring academics has been postponed; it's a frustrating fact," he said.
"People might say, 'Well, just don't get involved in that,'" said Hiebert. "It doesn't work that way; that's not responsible."
When asked in an interview, Hiebert said that the School Board may meet in closed session with its new attorney to discuss legal strategy. After initially indicating that Wednesday's meeting to discuss the issue with legal counsel would be closed, school officials decided to open the meeting to the public. Other property owners associated with the facility and the Glacier Sands attorney attended.
A sensitive divide
The fractures local silica sand is harvested to create are supposed to happen hundreds of miles away, in other states, but in Buffalo County sand rifts have formed closer to home. "People who are against it will just stare at you and not say a peep," said Dennis Bork, farmer and partner in the would-be Seven Sands mine. Billboards, roadside signs, and bumper stickers all declare their opposition to Bork's wish: seeing both the mine and the Glacier Sands transload facility proposed next to Cochrane-Fountain City School permitted. Rita Greshik is an opponent, too, but she said that unfair jealousy is aimed at people like Bork.
Overcoming the controversy that might divide them, Bob Kamrowski, landowner who agreed to sell his land to the transload facility; Rita Greshik, his neighbor, who reportedly turned down millions of dollars for her land, won a seat on the School Board, and opposes the facility; and Bork can still speak to each other. Greshik spoke with Kamrowski and Bork as neighbors and community members last week.
Greshik still does not want a sand loading facility next to her community's school. She questioned the accountability of Texas-based Glacier Sands. She still is worried about the chemical polyacrylamide sometimes used in sand washing. She wonders what might happen if a spill occurred in her community, as occurred in Blair, Wis., according to Star Tribune reports. Still, she understands the other side. That neighbors would stop speaking to each other "is sad," she told Bork.
"I totally understand someone who wants to sell their land because they want to make a profit for once," Greshik said. Consumers are not willing to pay farmers a fair price for food, she explained. "There's a lot farmers who say it's a much better option to sell to the sand companies" because their children don't want to farm, and their children do not want to farm because "they've all watched their parents break their backs," Greshik said. Do not praise my family for turning down Glacier Sands' offers, she said. They did not do it because they are saints, but because they are lucky enough to be in a situation where one of their sons is likely to take over the farm.
On Bork's farm, "We're running ten times the acreage with one-third of the labor," he said, adding that some of those workers left the community. "These kids that are graduating C-FC High, how many of them are going to stay in Buffalo County?" he asked. Buffalo County's per capita income is 14 percent lower than the state average.
Opponents are concerned about truck traffic from the transload site, but "whenever there is a truck on the road there's a driver, too," said Kamrowksi. "He's got a job, he's probably raising a family, and he's a tax payer."
Greshik encouraged him to be patient. Arcada, Wis., has changed greatly by the growth of Ashley Furniture, she said, but that change came gradually. Gradual change is easier for a community to accept, she said.
How long do we wait? Bork asked. "Look at the growth Trempealeau County has," he said. "Look at Buffalo County." Bork continued, "What's being done today is going to affect our children. When we retire and our kids can't afford to live here because there are no jobs around here."
"As long as there's no spills and no accidents, we'll all be going, 'Oh, that was bad memory,'" when we look back at this debate, Greshik said.