Not perfect, but good enough: Scandia council accepts Zavoral EIS

Richard Leider read a letter from former Vice President Walter Mondale at the meeting. Mondale was co-sponsor of the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and has a summer home on the river.

The Zavoral Mine environmental impact statement is complete.  Now the conditional use permit application process will resume.

At a special meeting on Sept. 25 the Scandia council voted 4 to 1 to accept the environmental impact statement.

Chris Ness cast the only no vote.

The audience included more than 50 residents and interested parties.

Employees from Tiller Corporation were on hand, plus members of the community group Take Action–Preserve Our Scandia (TA-COS), the St. Croix River Association, and the National Park Service.

The Zavoral Mine is located near the St. Croix River, just east of where Scandia Trail (TH-97) ends at St. Croix Trail (TH-95), two miles north of William O’Brien State Park.

All who spoke at the public hearing urged the council not to accept the EIS, saying it failed to adequately address traffic, noise and water quality concerns.

Before voting, the council made sure that any future conditional use permit for the mine could include additional mitigation measures, not just those listed in the EIS.

Council members also discussed mechanisms for halting mining, in case something catastrophic happens or the city is dissatisfied with the operation. In addition to a conditional use permit, the city issues an operating permit each year. The annual operating permit can be withheld until problems are resolved.

Council members who voted yes indicated that they question some conclusions in the EIS but think it’s time to move on.

A finding from the Minnesota Department of Transportation that no traffic change is needed at the intersection of TH-95 and TH-97 was especially criticized.

The council was charged with determining whether the EIS meets three criteria:  does it address significant issues raised in the scoping document, does it respond to substantive comments received, and was it prepared in compliance with the Environmental Policy Act.

Before voting, Sally Swanson said, “I think it meets the criteria.”

Jim Schneider added, “It needs to end somewhere.”

Mayor Randall Simonson assured the audience that the council was not rubber-stamping the mine proposal by accepting the EIS.

Simonson listed his own concerns with reopening the mine, including the fact that Scandia’s current comprehensive plan does not allow mining at that location.

“I am taking this very seriously,” he said, and pointed out that a finding of adequate for the EIS “does not mean this is going to happen.”

In addition to noise and truck traffic, he cited real estate impacts, safety concerns and business impacts. He also mentioned profiteering motives, pitting the needs of one over the needs of many. He cited the failed reclamation from past mining, the nine formerly untouched acres that would be mined, and the issue of digging within 3 feet of the water table. He pointed out that the St. Croix is the only designated Wild and Scenic River in Minnesota.

One criticism of the EIS was that it did not apply the appropriate noise standards to the riverway.

The EIS predicts that sound levels would remain low, with ambient noise plus mining noise not exceeding 42.0 dBA. City planner Sherri Buss likened that noise level to a quiet conversation in a room and said it meets the standards for the St. Croix.

At the public hearing Jill Medland, with the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway office in St. Croix Falls, said the ambient reading was taken in the summer, when birds and insects are loudest. At other times of year, she said, the ambient noise would likely be much lower.  The EIS study “applies the wrong standard to the riverway,” she said.  “If you and a friend were canoeing side by side, you would not be able to carry on a conversation.”

“We’re looking for the noise impacts to be fully disclosed so that you understand the consequences of your decision,” Medland said.

The AECOM sound engineer explained that to predict noise levels, mining noise was monitored at a similar facility, including loading trucks at the maximum level allowed. Resident Pam Arnold responded, “You don’t expect those noises at a national park.  It’s not just decibels, it’s quality of sound.”

Another resident said the St. Croix River valley is “an echo chamber:  I call, and it echoes back to me twice,” she said.

Buss said an additional noise mitigation measure could be put in place that would end mining at noon on Fridays. Doing this would add to the number of months needed to extract material from the mine.

She also said the city could require that trucks be inspected periodically to ensure that mufflers are in good working order.

In addition to noise issues, Medland also argued that the EIS understates environmental impacts to the riverway.  She called the document “inadequate for environmentally informed decision-making by the city.”

Also at the public hearing, Kristin Tuenge, speaking for TA-COS, said a mine so close to a national park does not deserve to be built. “Only the NO BUILD option is acceptable to us,” she concluded.

Gregory Page said the EIS has incomplete information about the seeps and small springs that bring water to the surface from underground. The EIS authors responded that the DNR, watershed district, and county conservation district have all sent representatives to the site to review this issue.

Bill Clapp, speaking for the 300-member St. Croix River Association, expressed disappointment that the document did not take seriously the comments made earlier in the process.

“It does provide responses,” he said, “but a lot of them are wrong.” The comments received at the final stage were repetitive, he said, “because you didn’t deal with them before.”

One example, Clapp said, is a statement that this is the only site with gravel Tiller has control of. “That is patently nuts,” he argued.  “If they weren’t mining here, they’d be taking it out of Franconia.”

Another example, he said, is a statement that if the project does not go forward, there won’t be money to restore the site.  “It’s more valuable now than it will be after it’s made into a 60-foot hole,” Clapp said. “Nobody is going to build a residential development in the crater that will be left after mining is done.”

One site that is developable, he said, is “the nine acres of woods that Tiller wants to tear out.”

Council member Chris Ness, who voted to continue revising the environmental impact statement instead of accepting it as final, said “I still have a real issue with the traffic situation.  Cars driving east on TH-97, trying to turn north on TH-95, would have trucks coming at them, he said.  “I don’t think it’s been studied adequately.”

Now that the EIS is done, the conditional use process can continue.  The application has been pending; to restart the review Tiller Corporation must submit additional information.  If that happens soon, the planning commission could begin work on the permit application as early as the Nov. 7 meeting.

“This does not mean it’s the end,” Mayor Simonson concluded.