It was a township committee meeting, but the topic of discussion, a conditional use permit to allow frac sand mining on the properties of three local farmers, drew a crowd with an interest which spilled over the boundaries of Bridgeport Township into neighboring municipalities and counties.
The conditional use permit before the Town of Bridgeport Plan Commission on Nov. 14 involves the lease of 305 acres from landowners Rodney and Sandra Marfilius, Lee and Joan Pulda, and Earl and Amber Pulda by the Pattison Sand Company. Pattison estimates disturbance of 178 acres with actual mining occurring on 127.9 acres. The mining operation as proposed would run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The town plan commission is responsible for making a recommendation of action to the township board, which then decides the fate of the requested conditional use permit. The township board must also approve or deny a mining application from Pattison for the project to proceed.
By her best estimate, Bridgeport Township clerk and member of the Zoning Committee Linda Smrcina thought two-thirds of the 70-plus person crowd came from outside the township.
The crowd spilled out of the meeting space. There were roughly 60 people in the hall, more in the vestibule, and some attendees left standing outside in the cold, ultimately leaving without participating.
Several attendees within the meeting hall asked that the meeting be rescheduled.
Bridgeport resident Angela Moody was among those. Moody requested that the meeting be rescheduled due to the crowding, lack of seating, and exclusion from participation from lack of space.
“Any doubt as to whether a meeting facility is large enough to satisfy the requirement should be resolved in favor of holding the meeting in a larger facility,” read Moody from the published Wisconsin Open Meetings Law interpretation by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.
In response, the board asked for a show of hands for those who wanted the meeting rescheduled and those who wanted it to continue. Most abstained from voting. The show of hands was evenly for and against.
Smrcina confirmed afterward the five-person committee (Smrcina, Lowell Ahrens, chairman Ryan Stram, Ed Linder and Troy Smrcina) had expected a large turnout.
Only four attendees spoke in favor of the application. One was Earl Pulda, one of the farmers Pattison plans to lease land from.
Pulda stressed that six months were spent finalizing plans that would effect only a portion of his farm. He also noted that this was his family’s decision as the owners and taxpayers of the property.
“Sorry to say,” Pulda said, “we’re here to take our little piece of the pie.”
Pulda’s brother Lee, also one of the potential leasers, echoed his brother’s sentiments.
“This will bring much needed jobs,” said Gary Oswald, another of the supporters present. Oswald also noted that farmers, responsible for much of the beauty admired and sited by promoters of tourism, received no economic benefit from keeping the land in agriculture and forestry.
A neighbor to Lee Pulda and Rod Marfilius, Mike Maceachern offered a tempered response. Stating the importance for energy independence and the role of silica sand in hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of gas and oil reserves otherwise inaccessible, Maceachern also voiced concern over the effect of sand mining on the value of neighboring properties.
Another neighbor on hand voiced strong opposition to the project. Mark Fischler was present to represent the interests of his extended family.
“I’m not for the idea,” Fischler said. He expressed concerns about the effects of the proposed mining on their homes, wells, farm animals and wildlife.
“We have a cave on the back 80 of Dad’s farm with a population of rare bats,” Fischler said, voicing concern about the impact of mine blasting, noise, and air pollution on the protected animals.
He expressed concern about how the noise could impact himself and his family.
“I need to sleep so I can get up in the morning to work,” Fishler added.
“We worked hard for it,” Fischler said of the family farms. “We want to pass it on. We are in total opposition of it.”
Many raised concerns over the effect of introducing silica sand particulates into the air on the health of community members.
Respirable silica dust is regulated in mining. Guidelines are in place both through the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), though tests do not occur with every biannual inspection and not all mines currently operating in Wisconsin have been tested. Nor do the tests address areas outside the mine facility.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not monitor silica dust as an air pollutant, nor does the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. While the DNR does include dust control in their permitting requirements, there are currently few active air particulate-monitoring stations. The closest air monitoring station is in southern Grant County.
Silica dust inhalation is the cause of silicosis, a non-reversible disease marked by the inflammation and scarring of lung tissues. Chronic silicosis caused by low-level exposure can take 10-30 years to manifest. In addition to reducing lung capacity and causing calcification of the tissues, it can lead to emphysema, heart failure, and pulmonary-tuberculosis.
Kathy Byrne with Crawford Stewardship Project in Ferryville handed the commission a stack of e-mails and letters in opposition to the sand mine, noting that Pattison had asked for an exception to renewing their permits and having them approved for the duration of the mines expected life, 60 years.
“Sixty years without review or renewal,” Byrne said, urging the commission to proceed with caution. “This will effect other generations.”
The impact of light and sound pollution was another focus of those speaking in opposition to the proposed mine.
Jean Napp of Star Splitters of Wyalusing State Park explained that the addition of fine particulates to the sky and the impression of bright lights so near the park would have a negative impact on the club’s ability to serve both it’s membership and the over 1,000 visitors to the Astronomy Center each year.
“If you add light or dust, you take away our ability to show people the night sky,” Napp said.
Wyalusing State Park, and its Lawrence L. Huser Astronomy Center, is located just over three miles as the bird flies from the proposed mine.
Several members of Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway arrived in a bus to speak.
“Everybody in this room has a legitimate say in this project because it falls in the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, which belongs to us all,” said president Tim Zamm.
Another FLOW member urged the commission to keep Pattison’s project off the Riverway.
A peer to the commission, Harriet Behar who serves on the planning committee in Clayton Township, urged the commission to take their time to learn about the project and to seek independent resources.
“How much time has been taken to look through these issues?” asked Behar. ‘The information used in the land use permit is one sided. I don’t see you using someone outside to represent township citizens.
“If you haven’t done due diligence, you may find you have a liability,” Behar noted. “I’m really hoping your town is bringing in outside help.”
Another area resident, Renee Randall, owner of Sweet Earth Organic Farm in Wauzeka, reminded the commission members that the frac sand boom was new and it came with dangers that might not be fully realized.
“Asbestos was not considered a dangerous product,” Randall said. “The federal government certainly didn’t stop people from working with it.”
The EPA banned asbestos in 1989. Reports citing it as a health risk and linking it to deaths have existed as early as 1918 in the United States.
Randall urged the commission to think ahead and consider the impact of their decision upon future generations.
After ending the public input, Stram gave the commission members an opportunity to respond. Linder and Troy Smrcina both expressed a feeling that they were ready to recommend the approval of the conditional use permit allowing the sand mine. Linda Smrcina and Ahrens both said they needed more time, given the bulk of material involved in the permit application. Stram also said he saw a need for more time and scheduled a meeting in one week to further discuss the conditional use permit without public input.
It was unclear how much time would be needed and if the commission would attempt to formulate a recommendation at the next meeting.
Linda Smrcina said she didn’t think it likely that she would feel ready in a week to make a recommendation.
“This is all new, we have a lot to read through and learn about,” Smrcina said.
That second meeting, scheduled for Nov. 21, has now been cancelled, according to Smrcina, in order to give commission members more time to go over the materials provided. They will be arranging another meeting, though possibly not until after Thanksgiving.
When the commission does make their recommendation it will go to the Town of Bridgeport Board. The township board consists of three members: John Karnopp, chairperson; Mike Steiner, supervisor; and Rod Marfilius, supervisor and also one of the landowners seeking to lease property to Pattison Sand.
Marfilius has chosen to abstain from voting on either permit to avoid a conflict of interest, according to Linda Smrcina, the township clerk.
In addition to the permit applications with Bridgeport Township, Pattison must also receive approval on: a Stormwater Pollution and Prevention Plan/Non Metallic Mining Permit application and an Air Permit application with the DNR; submit a Phase 1 Archeological Report for the DNR; and submit an Endangered Resources Report, which is being coordinated with the DNR’s Endangered Resources Bureau.