The possibility of a sacred tribal burial ground being disturbed is yet another issue surrounding the controversial frac sand mine opening in Houston County near Rushford, and on June 26, the Houston County Board of Commissioners heard concerns from yet another group.
John Borman, an attorney representing the Winona-Dakota Unity Alliance, said the site is within a mile of known burial grounds, with physical characteristics suggesting possible burial grounds in the mine.
Borman asked the board to encourage landowners to give Dakota tribal leaders the opportunity to walk the site to identify possible burial mounds. Borman said the reason for the request is not only in the interest of the Dakota and Ho-Chunk people, but also the landowner.
“These are what are known as private cemeteries and they come under the Private Cemeteries Act,” Borman said.
According to state statutes, the law specifically protects Native American burial grounds. If it is determined that a burial ground is Native American in origin, then the authority shifts to the state archeologist and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. By taking action beforehand, Houston County could avoid legal disputes in the future. Borman said it is a felony to knowingly disturb any kind of burial grounds.
Chairman Jack Miller said commissioners had no real authority to order an inspection of the land.
Borman admitted the board could not order an inspection and that the landowner would need to agree, but said that if the Minnesota Indian Affair Council comes to the conclusion that there is a burial ground on site, it does have the authority to order an inspection.
Connie Arzigian, an archeologist from the Mississippi Archeology Center, said there was a high probability of finding burial grounds on the site. She explained that in the event a burial ground is found, the law dictates that a 25-foot buffer zone would be placed around the mounds. The landowner would still own the property, but the site would be put on the public record. Typical uses for the site could continue.
Mine operator Rick Frick, at the meeting on behalf of landowner Tracie Erickson, was asked whether he would be willing to let the property be inspected for burial mounds. He said he had walked the land multiple times and had never come across any mounds.
“This is just a last-ditch effort to stop (the mine),” Frick said, “and it should still be the landowner’s choice. Why do other people have a say over what Tracie does with his land?”
William Quackenbush, tribal historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, said that while it’s beneficial that the property was inspected by the landowners for burial mounds, an expert who is trained in identifying the mounds is still required to walk the property.
“Our main concern is protection of cultural resources. Nothing more,” Quackenbush said.
In addition to the burial mound discussion, Susan Van Gorp, owner of a hobby farm directly across from the mine, wished to make a rebuttal to the “moving to a nuisance” defense argued by Frick’s attorney, Mark Utz, at the previous meeting.
During the previous commissioners meeting, Utz argued that the Baker family moved to their property after the initial permit was granted in 1992, fully aware they would be living next to a sand mine. The Bakers were, in fact, required to apply for a variance to build near the mine, which Utz referred to as “moving to a nuisance.”
Van Gorp argued that the Bakers did not move next to a frac sand mine but the mine moved next to them. Prior to the Bakers and the Van Gorps moving to their property, the mind was considered a commercial sand pit, not an industrial one.
“We did not move to nuisance, a nuisance has moved to us,” said Van Gorp, adding that this mine would alter the environment and lifestyle of the surrounding land owners. “By approving this permit, the county seems to be saying to our family that our rights are less valuable than the rights of our neighbors.”
Van Gorp also asked whether anyone on the commissioners board, zoning board or frac sand study committee has a conflict of interest, such as owning land that could be mined or have family with an interest in the mining business. She said she was aware of one and further stated that one individual had received money from mining interests.
However, Van Gorp did not identify the person who received money. She asked that anyone with a conflict of interest recuse themselves from further proceedings. Eric Johnson, a member of the frac sand study committee attending the meeting, wanted a name to go with Van Gorp’s accusations.
The commissioners were not aware of any money transferring that would influence the decision and Van Gorp claimed to have a name, but refused to give it at that time and asked for an investigation.
“I am not personally going to do an inquisition,” Miller said. “If there is a specific complaint, it’s my job to look into it, but I am not going to do background checks on every member of the committee. … If given a specific name, I’ll be happy to look into it.”
Next, Environmental Services Director Rick Frank said that while he was not aware of any individual on the committees accepting money, he did admit there was a cross section of people on the study committee with different interests, which was intended from the start.
Miller acknowledged that the study committee was purposely made up of people with different opinions on the issue.
Frank said that the committee itself did not have the authority to make county decisions, but rather to simply make recommendations to the board.
Miller closed this line of discussion by saying that if the board finds someone doing something illegal, it would deal with it, but added that it’s next to impossible to find any individual without any connection to the issue, because, in Houston County, it would be difficult to find someone who has absolutely no relatives or never studied anything at school related to the issue.
Miller then read from an email submitted by Tom Canon, the county’s attorney. In the email, Canon said the conditional-use permit approved on the sand mine in 1992 would remain with the land in effect unless the conditions of the permit have been violated.
Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan told the board that if it wishes to conduct a review of the property on whether it still meets the conditions of the permit, a public hearing must be held first.
Commissioners agreed by consensus to call for a hearing, as well as encourage the landowners of the property to consent to an investigation of the property for possible burial grounds. The public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, July 16.
In response to comments that the board should make an immediate decision rather than delay, Commissioner Justin Zmyewski said that for the benefit of both sides, it needs to be done right the first time rather than have to redo it later.
“If it means waiting a couple weeks, personally I don’t see waiting a couple weeks being a huge issue. It’s going to be there to mine, but I’d like it done right the first time because I don’t like going back and cleaning up the mess and I don’t want there being a huge lawsuit we could have prevented,” he said.