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Frac Sand or Farmland: Wisconsin farmers face showdown — rescheduled for August 9
UPDATED — HEARING DATE CHANGED: On an early summer morning in June, John Rosenow, a tall, soft-spoken man in his early sixties, leans against the bed of his pick-up, surveying his neighbor's newly planted field of corn. In every direction, all one can see are the gently rolling hills surrounding Rosenow's land. The view is timeless and expansive. Yet all this could change overnight if Rosenow's neighbors are given a permit to excavate frac sand from these hills.
For 40 years, John Rosenow, a fifth generation dairy farmer, and his wife, Nettie, have lived and farmed in this quiet, scenic valley in Buffalo County, Wisconsin, about 25 miles north of Winona, Minnesota. The Rosenows, along with their partner Loren Wolfe, run Rosenholm Wolfe Dairy, a 500-head conventional dairy operation that employs 20 people. John and Nettie Rosenow are also the proprietors of Cowsmo Compost, a popular compost and potting soil sold to organic gardeners and farmers in the Twin Cities metro area.
Cowsmo Compost has been selling compost made from cow manure to gardeners and organic farmers in the Twin Cities area since 2001. In 2006, Rosenholm Wolfe Dairy began producing potting soil for local markets in the Upper Midwest. Cowsmo now offers four types of compost-based potting soils. Their products meet NOP (National Organic Program) standards and are available in bulk, bags or totes at locations throughout the Twin Cities metro area, western Wisconsin, and southeastern Minnesota. In the Twin Cities, their product is carried by the Wedge Coop, Mississippi Market, Mother Earth Gardens and a number of other retail nursery and landscape businesses.
Last March, Seven Sands LLC, a consortium of seven landowners in the Waumandee Valley, submitted an application to the Buffalo County zoning department for a conditional use permit (CUP) to develop a 450-acre open-pit frac sand mine on 1400 acres of farmland. The venture would include a sand processing plant, a number of holding ponds for storm and waste water, conveyors and other mining related facilities. If the county's three-person, zoning board of adjustment approves the permit, the Rosenows face the destruction of a large chunk of land next door and 400 sand trucks passing within 30 feet of their home and farm, every day.
Digging deeper into frac sand in Wisconsin: For more information about frac sand, the Frac Sand Frisbee has lots of documentation and links to news articles and public records, including a scanned version of the Seven Sands application and a PDF of the motion to deny submitted by Nettie and John Rosenow on July 2nd.
Bruce Baecker, one of the seven landowners filing for a conditional use permit, said a neighboring farmer first approached him and his brother about leasing mineral rights to a company called Glacier Sands last winter. "The company had been traveling through the valley, looking at land between 800 and 920 feet above sea level," he said.
Over the last several years, a sand rush has taken hold in western Wisconsin. Frac sand, a commodity used in hydraulic fracturing by the oil and gas industry, has attracted Wall Street investors eager to jump into a fast growing market. Glacier Sands, the mining company behind Seven Sands LLC, was formed in 2011 by Ike and Ryan Thomas, a father-son team from Granbury, Texas and Brian Iverson a developer from Wayzata, Minnesota.
Glacier Sands LLC has no proven track record in Wisconsin and little experience as a start-up company but submitted five applications for conditional use permits in Buffalo County including one for a dry plant and rail facility within the last six months. The proposed facility would operate 24/7, handle over 12,000 tons of sand hauled by 500 trucks per day, and would be built in a wetland area next to the Mississippi River, directly across from the Cochrane-Fountain City K-12 school.
Baecker, and another landowner who wishes to remain anonymous, insist that the amount of land actually involved in the Seven Sands deal has been greatly exaggerated. Baecker says he entered into a contract with Glacier Sands that limits the location and number of acres that will be mined, yet readily admits that all 343 acres of his parcel are included in the conditional use permit. His land also could be used for other purposes related to the Seven Sands mine besides excavation.
Brian Iverson has been accused of securities fraud and self-dealing by a group of investors associated with two other mining start-ups in Montana. [See text of Montana complaint in Appendix D.] Less than two years ago, Iverson filed for bankruptcy to relieve more than $21 million in debt stemming from past business ventures and personal guaranties he gave as security for business loans.
Nettie Rosenow and other concerned citizens of Buffalo County, have grown increasingly frustrated with what she and others see as the zoning board of adjustment's (BOA) indifference to issues related to the health, safety and welfare of the community. At public hearings, when questions are raised about the impact of mining on air, groundwater, and traffic, Rosenow observes that the board of adjustment doesn't seem to listen or care, rubber-stamping applications without following proper procedures or assessing what she believes are the full implications of mining.
"The original board of adjustment was very unprepared and totally influenced by the zoning administrator. [Former zoning administrator Paul Van Eijl] basically told them they had to approve the mines," Rosenow claims. Last April, Van Eijl, who had served as Buffalo County's zoning administrator for 11 years, resigned to work as a land acquisitions manager for Superior Sand Systems, Inc., a frac sand company based in Calgary. Van Eijl was responsible for processing applications and advising the BOA on permits.
Chad DeWyre, then part-time zoning technician and inspector for Buffalo County, also left the zoning department in March to take a position with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Wisconsin. Jake Sedivy, was hired to replace DeWyre in June. Buffalo County has not hired a new zoning administrator yet. When asked about the role he plays advising the zoning board of adjustment on conditional use permits, Sedivy would only say that his job is "to minimize conflicts between land uses."
Public hearing in Gilmanton, Wisconsin, 6/27/12
Bruce Baecker doesn't actually live on the parcel of land he is leasing to Glacier Sands. His home and dairy farm are about five miles away from the proposed mine site. "People say you don't live there, it's not fair. I'd like to [be in] the position of not having sand but I think it's just another commodity like milk, corn, soybeans. You can't have your cake and eat it too. That's just the way business works."
Bruce Baecker says the land to be mined, although zoned agricultural, is not prime farmland and marginal at best. But Nettie Rosenow takes a completely different point of view. When asked how mining would impact dairy farming in the Waumandee Valley, Rosenow says, "Frac sand is not lime for fields, it's not milk or food. I just don't know how something that tears up beautiful, agricultural land can be looked at impartially. I fear other mines will follow quickly if these are approved... this is easy money. Some people need very little encouragement to stop milking cows. Dairy farming is not easy money."
In the meantime, Glacier Sands is aggressively promoting a public relations campaign that has served to heighten tensions between neighbors in the Waumandee Valley. The company has distributed bright green signs and t-shirts bearing the slogan, "sand = jobs". Mine supporters wear these shirts to public hearings loudly applauding or shouting catcalls when the BOA approves or tables an application.
The Buffalo County zoning board of adjustment was originally scheduled to review the Seven Sands application for a conditional use permit at a public hearing in Gilmanton, Wisconsin, July 17th. That hearing date has now been changed to August 9, with anothe rhearing on another part of the frac sand project on July 24.
EDITOR'S NOTE: When this article was published, the author got an email saying the hearing date had now been changed. Here's what she found out:
"The board of adjustment along with Buffalo County Board Chair, Del Twidt, decided to reschedule the hearing on July 5th. According to Sedivy, he sent official notices to the Buffalo County Journal and the Mondovi Herald on June 29th for the public hearing but gave them the wrong information. He didn't realize he had made this mistake until July 3rd after the notice had already gone to press.
"A retraction and correction will appear in both papers on July 12th with the new date of August 9th, time, 5:30 p.m. This notice will appear in the July 26th editions of both newspapers too.
"There will also be a change of venue for the Seven Sands public hearing August 9th. It will now be held at the Alma High School in Alma, Wisconsin. I asked Sedivy why the change in venue? He said, "I don't know why. Maybe because it's more centrally located." When I asked him who made the decision to change venues, he said, "Probably Del Twidt."
"Another public hearing is scheduled for July 24th in Alma at the Alma High School for the proposed Starkey rail spur and dry wash facility (the facility that would be located across from the Cochrane-Fountain City School).
A lawyer with the Twin Cities law firm, Lindquist & Vennum, will give expert testimony on the Rosenows' behalf and present a petition to deny Seven Sands' request for a permit at the hearing. The BOA has 60 days to make a decision but could grant or deny a permit to Seven Sands, LLC. that night.