Decision time for Scandia’s Zavoral Mine

flyover 12-14-12 big picture from S
The Zavoral mine site as seen from the south. St. Croix Trail (TH-95) can be seen on the left and the St. Croix River on the right. Photo by Mary Bailey with pilot Sam Husnik.

The Scandia planning commission will soon make a recommendation to the city council on whether to grant a mining permit to reopen the Zavoral sand and gravel mine.

Very little time is left: The planning commission will meet on Thursday, Dec. 27 and Wednesday, Jan. 2. They will give their recommendation to the council before that body meets on Jan. 15. The council must make a decision by Feb. 20. If it does not, the application will be considered approved.


The city can choose to allow mining for up to 10 years, limit the time to three to five years, drastically reduce the time to about a year, or deny the permit altogether.

If the city grants the permit, conditions will be placed on the mine to limit negative effects such as noise, dust, and traffic.

If it denies the permit, the city may have to defend its decision in court. Under Scandia’s current comprehensive plan, the mine would not be permitted at that site, but the application was submitted in 2008, before the current plan went into effect.

In this photo taken from the northwest, snow-covered sand and gravel piles can be seen. Trucks leaving the mine would cross TH-95 (the highway extending from left to right in this view) and head west on TH-97 (the highway at the bottom right corner).
In this photo taken from the northwest, snow-covered sand and gravel piles can be seen. Trucks leaving the mine would cross TH-95 (the highway extending from left to right in this view) and head west on TH-97 (the highway at the bottom right corner).

Between 2008 and 2012 the mine was subjected to two environmental reviews, the Environmental Assessment Worksheet and the Environmental Impact Statement.

During those years many residents have spoken against reopening the mine, which is located near the St. Croix River. They have been joined in their opposition by the National Park Service, the St. Croix River Association, the Friends of Scandia Parks and Trails, and a citizen group formed specifically to oppose the mine, Take Action—Conserve Our Scandia.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who as a U.S. Senator co-authored the Wild and Scenic River Act protecting the St. Croix and other rivers, and who has a summer home on the river, also opposes the mine.

To begin their deliberations, the planning commission gave everybody one more chance to speak.

The commission conducted two evenings of meeting with large crowds and many speakers, including residents who fear they will lose their peace and quiet, river lovers who fear a precious natural wonder will be damaged, folks with health problems who fear the dust, homeowners who fear their property values will decrease, business owners who fear the area will lose its tourist appeal, and drivers/walkers/parents who fear mining truck traffic on the highways will cause not only noise but also accidents.

Ground Rules

One might expect some raw nerves, at the least. Instead, the meeting was polite and professional, even though there was plenty of passion and frustration.

Scandia Planning Chair Christine Maefsky
Christine Maefsky

Planning Commission Chair Christine Maefsky set the tone at the beginning of each meeting and laid down the ground rules:

Come to the microphone; state name and address. Address the planning commission. Back up comments with facts.

If a response is needed, the chair will ask for a response, and the applicant will respond to the planning commission. Temper public response to speakers.

“This topic is very complex, and the process has gone on for almost four years,” Maefsky said. “There are many issues. Be patient with one another. Our goal is to have a full understanding.”


City Planner Sherri Buss of TKDA described the project and explained how mitigations listed in the Environmental Impact Statement would become conditions of operation if the permit is issued.

Tiller Corporation’s engineer and attorney presented their case. In telling the history of the project, they reminded the audience of changes they made in response to public concern for water quality. In 2009 Tiller removed washing, sorting and stockpiling from the plan. Instead, the sand and gravel would be trucked to Tiller’s other Scandia mine for processing.

The number of trucks is still a primary concern, as is traffic at the intersection of TH-95 and TH-97. Trucking noise along the transportation route, and mining noise audible from the river, are also issues.

The possibility of severe weather causing a major catastrophe in the St. Croix River would be minimized if the shortest possible mining duration is chosen. Property values would also recover sooner under this option. The number of trucks on the road, however, could peak at 736 round trips per day, with trucks running five days a week for 12 hours per day.

In the last five years the city has provided many chances for public comment, both oral and written. The two-part planning commission meeting on Dec. 4 and Dec. 12 provided another seven hours to discuss these topics.

Unfortunately, only a few speakers could be quoted in this limited space. From the many eloquent lines delivered, these were chosen because they had something new to say or a fresh way of saying it.

Conclusion of City Planner Sherri Buss

12-12-12 Sherri BussOn the whole, based on requiring that all of the mitigation that was included in the EIS is included in the conditions for this mine project, as well some additional conditions related to how the site would be monitored and how that information would be reported to the city, based on what they’ve provided in their application and what the EIS says, the planner’s conclusion is that they meet the requirements of Ordinance No. 103.

Comment by Laurie Allmann

12-12-12 Laurie AllmannA study on the site was just completed by Scott Alexander, a geologist at the University of Minnesota, using LiDAR data. [LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, uses laser light to measure surface features on the earth, resulting in high-resolution elevation data.]

He determined that there is a paleochannel, a buried higher river channel of the St. Croix from an earlier time. Because of this feature, the water table may in fact be higher than assumed in the EIS. The only way to know the actual water table elevation is to drill another well (he recommends three). The current wells being used to evaluate the water table there may not be in the same hydrologic unit. If Tiller mines down to 840 feet above sea level, they may actually be far closer to the water table than we anticipate. In periods of heavy rain, the water table could actually rise into the pit.

The other impact is that it may cause surface water to increase in areas that are unstable. Alexander believes this paleochannel may have contributed to the blowout that occurred in the past. That could mean the site is predisposed to another blowout, especially if, as proposed, more water is directed into the pit.

Comment by Sue Rodsjo [As a former planning commission member] I sat at the table with you when we first heard the request from Tiller to consider this mine under the old comprehensive plan.

I found it very frustrating at the time that our attorney was telling us we had to look at it under that plan because the new plan wasn’t approved. He was very forceful in telling us this is the way it needs to be considered.

I had my doubts, and I really wish, looking back on it, that we had asked for another legal opinion. When he suggested that we needed to look at it under the old plan, he wasn’t telling us going forward that it’s the only way we can ever look at it. We didn’t have the opportunity to hear these other attorneys stating the other point of view. I would have done something different. [The city attorney is] advising the city to mitigate the risk of a suit from Tiller. As a resident of Scandia, I would much rather the city accept the cost of that risk and protect my interest as a citizen. I’m willing to accept the city having to fight a suit from Tiller. Are you protecting the city from the risk of a lawsuit by a citizen of Scandia? Who’s to say there aren’t citizens here who will sue if their property is devalued, or if a child is killed by a truck on the road?

Comment by Cliff Guggisberg

I’m one of the few who are for the mine, because I enjoy the new 35E and redone 61. Highway 95 is a beautiful road.

I live on Big Marine Lake, where they put a new park in. Now the motorboats are so loud I keep my windows closed in the summertime.

Tiller made a comment about the availability of resources. I just read an article that we have about 50 years left; after that, gravel will be in very short supply. [Guggisberg said he prefers a 10-year time frame.] When they did Running Aces, all the dirt came through Scandia. There were that many trucks, if not more. That wouldn’t put any more traffic on this road than there is now.

Comment by Dan Willius

12-12-12 Dan WilliusIn 1950 my parents bought a cabin in Franconia, upriver from here. Years ago, before I moved to Scandia, I used to occasionally take a day off from work for some quiet R&R on the Franconia screen porch. At least that was the expectation. The old gravel mine on Highway 95, north of the Osceola turnoff (which, not so incidentally, remains a very ugly scar), is over 1.5 miles from that screen porch. But on a quiet afternoon, I would swear it was across the street. Whatever the decibel level, it was an irritating sound that went on and on, all day long.

The mining ordinance says a mine must meet federal, state, and city noise standards. I don’t see anything about decibels in the city ordinance. Equally important to most of us is the character of the sound and the context. Think about the  incessant beep, beep, beep of earth movers in reverse. Or the harsh crash of heavy steel on steel when truck gates slam closed. Or the deep-throated growl of diesel engines under stress. Whatever the decibels, these sounds are intrusive and objectionable in the context of the St. Croix Valley.

Comment from John Herman

12-12-12 John Herman 2I’m an attorney at Faegre Baker Daniels in Minneapolis and a Scandia resident. I think this is the wrong place for the city to approve a mine.  A city can make a legislative decision whether to apply its old ordinance, that was in place when the application was received, or the new ordinance, in place when the application is decided.

A city can impose a moratorium or undertake an environmental review, and while those things are going on, can change its ordinance and decide to apply the new ordinance. There’s no vested right in zoning, and the general rule is that cities always impose their new ordinance.

The city attorney says we’re estopped because Tiller came in within months of when the Met Council was to approve the new ordinance. I’m sorry, but that is not estoppal — that’s a business risk! And I don’t think the city would face any risk of a material nature, at all, in deciding to apply the new ordinance.

This is the single most important thing about this case. If we decide now that we’re not going to apply the new ordinance, we put handcuffs on ourselves as a city that Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Marshan Township do not. I think it’s the wrong legal decision by the city, and I request that the planning commission make a recommendation to the council on whether to apply the old or the new, because it’s a critical question.

A conditional use means a city can make a reasoned decision whether all the criteria are met. You have to decide if this is a suitable place, with all the conditions you can apply, where this should be allowed. It’s not an easy decision. Tiller is a good company. They put together a good team and a very workmanlike reclamation plan. It is a disturbed site. But is that really enough?

Your planner talked about what the 1998 comprehensive plan says about mining, three or four lines. She didn’t say one word about everything else in the plan! Rural character must have been mentioned 15 times. Natural resource values, scenic views, orderly and economic development — I don’t think it’s consistent with that. Compatibility with adjacent uses? We’ve got 32 homesteads within a quarter mile of this site.

Land use planning is not always about figuring out conditions that will allow us to mitigate the impact. Land use planning is about creating districts where certain uses are allowed. And conditional use permits are often denied. To hear the planning staff, you’d think turning down a CUP was one of the hardest things to do!

If [a nearby resident] has a 5 percent loss in value, on a $200,000 home with a 75 percent mortgage, their loss as a percentage of equity is substantial.

Nobody thinks that it’s not going to be more dangerous at that corner. Much more of the traffic turns left, and every one of these trucks will be dead stopped, then going up hill. It would only take a couple of serious accidents and we’d all say, “Holy cow, why did we do that?”

To not have a word in the entire report about the National Park Service statement that this will have a material detriment and violate their noise standards doesn’t meet the smell test.

This is not the place that this should be permitted even under stringent conditions, but if you are going to impose conditions on it, let’s have a little bigger setback to private property, a higher berm to the national park area. And give serious consideration to having this be the shortest possible duration.

Comment from Ann Bancroft

12-12-12 Ann BancroftThe challenge to protect something as fragile and sacred as a wild and scenic river requires huge self-control. If you believe the St. Croix is a national treasure, then 313,000,000 people who are citizens of the U.S. have a stake in this river. It’s well beyond Scandia, and it belongs to all of us.

In supporting the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1965, then-Senator Walter Mondale said that, in the face of ever-increasing urban sprawl, we need more than ever a place of refuge and beauty. This is no place for a mine. The needs of our community outweigh the benefits to stakeholders.