When the Trempealeau County Board voted to temporarily suspend frac sand mining last month, its members thought the issue was solved – but one company has found a loophole that may allow it to build a new mine this year.
According to Supervisor Olin Fimreite, a majority of board members approved the moratorium on mining permits to address health and environmental concerns voiced by the community. He said the county has nearly 30 active mining permits, more than any other county in Wisconsin.
"I thought that we needed a little bit of time,” Fimreite said of the moratorium.”It seemed as though we had a lot of approvals in Trempealeau County of permits."
But the moratorium isn't stopping the Texas-based Hi-Crush Proppants from moving forward with its plans to build a frac sand mine near the township of Lincoln via a loophole of sorts in county zoning codes.
The temporary suspension on mining permits only applies to county land; they don’t apply to cities and villages within the county. According to Hi-Crush General Counsel Mark Skolos, the company is in the process of petitioning to annex its property to the cities of Whitehall and Independence – if Hi-Crush’s land was considered a part of these towns, it would be able to continue plans for mine construction.
First, though, the company must have its petition for annexation approved by each community's city councils. As a resident of Whitehall, Fimreite is biting his nails over the idea of having yet another mine open near his hometown and in his county.
"There are going to be three mines operating very close to Whitehall. How close to Whitehall are they going to get? Are they going to be right over these hills 50 years from now?"
He's also worried about the potential effects another mine would have on the county's scenic beauty, a strength he says keeps tourists coming back.
But there are benefits to Hi-Crush's proposal - not only would a sand mine help the county's economy, but annexation would also boost both cities' tax bases.
"We will create 50 fulltime jobs in terms of people who just work at the plant,” Skolos said of the proposed mine.
And while the company would be able to skirt county regulations through annexation, it would still be privy to both cities’ mining regulations – ordinances that, for example, dictate acceptable hours of operation for the proposed mine.
The increase in tax base and an extra 50 jobs are two pros to annexation that Fimreite, as reluctant as he is to the idea, can’t ignore.
"I am concerned for the annexation, but there's always two sides to an issue,” he said.
Whitehall’s Committee of the Whole will meet Wednesday night to consider Hi-Crush’s annexation petition and hear public comment on the issue. The body can then make a recommendation for or against the proposal to the community’s City Council. If annexation is approved, construction for the new mine could begin as early as October, according to Skolos.