A standing-room-only meeting Monday had Unimin officials offering Greenfield Township residents every assurance that its proposed sand mine would be safe and unobtrusive once in place.
The meeting, which drew between 130 and 150 people at LaGrange Elementary in Tomah, also brought calls for Greenfield Town Chair Steve Witt to step down because his family has made hundreds of thousands of dollars in land sales to the Connecticut-based mining company.
Another meeting has been scheduled for Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the town hall in Tunnel City to address attempts to enact a moratorium on mining and pursue zoning within the town, although anti-mining regulation may be unenforceable.
Unimin so far has spent roughly $9.5 million to purchase 721 acres for the site, according to records from the Monroe County Register of Deeds Office. The site would be located in the heart of Greenfield Township between Fort McCoy, Tunnel City, Highway 21 and Interstate 90.
Western Wisconsin is in the midst of a rush of sand mining due to the area’s near-endless supply of the silica sand used in the “fracing” process of oil and natural gas extraction.
It is dividing communities like Greenfield and making millionaires of landowners. Unimin has given sellers double and near triple the value of their property and has paid three landowners of 110 to 130 acres over a million dollars each for their land.
Falling under fire after some of those sales has been Witt. According to a local anti-mine group calling itself Tunnel City Sand Mine Neighbors Working Together, Unimin has paid more than $2 million for land owned by Witt’s mother, two brothers and nephews.
Town attorney Rick Radcliffe responded to allegations of a conflict of interest and stated Witt “did not gain anything of value for himself or his family,” pointing out that by statute family is defined as a “person’s spouse or children that you are responsible for.”
“There is a difference between legal conflict of interest and everyone’s perceptions or opinions,” Radcliffe said, adding that neither Witt nor any of the board members have received “anything of value” from Unimin.
Some at the meeting called for Witt to step down or at least remove himself from negotiations with Unimin.
“That guy should step down. Greenfield Township is in for a lawsuit,” said Tim Harmon, a 30-year resident who lives near the proposed mine.
Others defended Witt. Letha Webster, a retired caretaker, and her ailing husband sold their 8.5-acre parcel to Unimin for $330,000, more than its market value.
“There are a lot of people who are related, and how are you going to get someone (to negotiate) who is not related to anyone else?” Webster asked, drawing a round of applause.
Witt did not address the conflict of interest allegations at the meeting, and he did not return a call in time for this story.
A portion of the 721 acres Unimin has purchased also lies in the town of Wells, but company officials said they haven’t yet secured the strip of land between Highway 21 and Flag Avenue in Greenfield that would enable Unimin to build a railroad spur to connect to the processing plant and allow trucks direct access to the highway.
Next week’s meeting again will take up discussion on options for stopping the sand mine, but those may be moot, according to Radcliffe. He previously stated that if zoning were enacted it, wouldn’t prevent the company from installing and operating the several-hundred acre mine and sand processing plant. He also speculated that a moratorium or an anti-mining ordinance would be unenforceable.
On Monday, company spokespersons and others addressed the crowd regarding water-and-air quality issues, land use, safety concerns, property values and other issues.
Officials pledged that mining operations would not have a negative effect on area ground water or quality. Based on the models they used, the planned dual 30-gallon-per-minute pumps, even if operated 24 hours a day for 30 years, would have no effect on ground water levels beyond the perimeter of the mine.
“That’s what the model says, but it’s just a model,” said Aaron Weeger, a Unimin hydrogeology consultant.
Weeger also told attendees of the meeting that test wells would be installed to monitor drawdown and gave a list of specific measures Unimin would undertake if a significant drawdown were discovered.
Once an onsite, lined holding pond of yet-undetermined dimensions is filled, Weeger said the mine will use between 20 to 30 gallons of water per minute. The holding pond will be located on the west side of the ridge that runs through the property.
Andy O’Brien, a manager for Unimin, touted the company’s record in regard to the low number of documented employee cases of the silica sand-related illness silicosis, caused by scarification of the lungs by inhaling fine dust particles.
Unimin gave assurances that it will be conducting property line sampling of air quality but did not commit to sampling outside the mine site, nor could officials pinpoint exactly how far outside the mine silica dust could or would travel.
“It could be a mile, it could be a hundred miles,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said the company uses state-of-the-art filtration systems inside its plants to control dust and active measures outside, such as sprinkling.
Site plans showed at the meeting call for a processing plant located below grade and out of the sightline of nearby residents north of Flag Avenue.
One audience member asked about the possibility of dust clouds over Tomah, but Unimin special projects manager Steve Groening said, “That’s not the way Unimin does business ... We want to have the least amount of impact as possible.”
Groening told another resident that blasting in the mine likely would not be necessary or cost-effective and that bulldozers — or “rippers” and “scrapers” — would be the preferred method to extract rock and sand.
When asked if Unimin would repair foundations of homes near the mine that were damaged by blasting, if it were necessary, Groening said, “If we cause it, we’ll fix it.”
Town assessor Ian Holloway attempted to allay concerns regarding decreased property values as an effect of the mine but had not been given complete information from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. He did indicate, though, that there was the potential for a drop of up to 30 percent of the values of homes affected.
“I know there will be a couple of subdivisions that will be directly affected by it,” Holloway said. “There’s not a whole lot I can tell you (about) what it’s going to do to your tax bill.”
Officials said that once they break ground on the mine, the plant site will be excavated so that it is below grade and out of view to property owners to the north. Additional berms will be created to obstruct the view of the mine.
“We want to change (the landscape) in such a way that it minimizes the impact,” Groening said.
Radcliffe said the town is negotiating a comprehensive agreement with Unimin that addresses many of the concerns residents brought up, but he said the details of the agreement would remain confidential during the negotiation process. A public hearing on the agreement will be scheduled when possible.
Real estate purchases by Unimin in Greenfield and Wells townships from May 31 to Aug. 5.
Anderson, Gregory, $250,000 July 21 (21.8 acres)
Betthauser, Robert and Theresa, $400,000, July 18 (7.9 acres)
Broecker, Wayne, $160,000, Aug. 1 (10 acres)
Clark, Janice, $270,000, Aug. 2 (4 acres)
Crouch, Naomie and Chester, $195,000, July 26 (.9 acres)
Curran, Tom and Kari, $1,500,000, July 1 (130.4 acres)
Duncan, Ron and Carol, $340,000, July 1 (4.1 acres)
Edrman, Donald, $110,000, Aug. 1 (.8 acres)
Farris, Fred, $325,000, July 26 (3 acres)
Frederick, Timothy S., $125,000, May 31 (23 acres)
Hartung, Peter and Kristin Hilliker-Hartung, June 30, $1,305,000 (130 acres)
Johnson, Margaret (Witt) Johnson and William, $900,000, July 26 (71.5 acres)
Knutson, Scott, $200,000, Aug. 2 (21.3 acres)
Murphy, JoAnne and Martin, $250,000, July 25 (3.3 acres)
Nicks, Ronald and Kathleen, $1,013,655, July 1 (110.4 acres)
Rengert, Michael, $219,000, June 1 (59.5 acres)
Roberts, Earl, Barbara and Karolene, $210,000, July 28 (.6 acres)
Webster, Letha and Eugene, $330,000, Aug. 5 (8.6 acres)
Webster, Howard, $125,000, Aug. 5 (9 acres)
Witt, David and Laura, $250,000, July 28 (20 acres)
Witt, Joyce and Donald, $900,000, July 28 (73.8 acres)
Witt, Matthew, $85,000, July 25 (7.7 acres)
Total spent: $9,462,655
Total acres purchased: 721.6