Big Hole County?

Last Thursday night, I attended the Big Stone County Planning Commission’s public hearing on Strata Corporation’s proposed new mining project along the Hwy 7/75 and Minnesota River corridors south of Ortonville.

Clinton’s Memorial Building was packed when I walked in at 7:30pm. The first hour and forty minutes of the public hearing were devoted to Stata Corp’s presentation, an executive summary of which is linked to here.

Because I was sitting in the back of the room, it was hard to make out names–I did not see a hand out that gave information on who was presenting, but I was under the impression that there was a project manager and an environmental consultant to the company. There might’ve been a third presenter, but it was difficult to see over all of the heads and distinguish which of the company’s people (all of whom had their backs to the public) was speaking at any given time.

Before I write about the content of the presentation, let me say that I did not arrive at the hearing set against the project. I grew up in a family whose bread and butter came from the construction industry, and I understand that the raw materials of that industry have to come from somewhere. I spent my middle- and high school years living very near a gravel pit mined by a nearby construction company.

But, I also grew up in a state where you don’t blow up your natural and scenic wonders and crush them into aggregate for road construction. Which is pretty much what this company is proposing to do–detonate a bunch of our beautiful granite formations (for which Big Stone Lake, and Big Stone County are named), pulverize them, and ship them out of area via unit train.

The presentation was a mixture of facts about the industry, the company, and its operations, stories about the quest for this “holy grail” of aggregate sources, and videos purporting to show what they’d be doing here, how loud it’d be, and how invisible they’d try to make it.

The story of how the company came to set its sights on Big Stone County’s namesake seemed calculated to show that they’d invested an inordinate amount of time and resources in arriving at our door. I wondered if perhaps they weren’t trying to make the public feel a little guilty about not giving Strata what they want even if what they want isn’t really in the public’s best interest.

There was a careful comment about NIMBY-ism–not saying directly that the opposition were Not-In-My-Back-Yarders, but bringing up the term and educating us that the materials for construction have to come from somewhere.  And the metro areas are really in need of what we’ve got at the low extraction price it can be gotten for here (being that it’s visible right at the surface, which is a big part of why we’re so proud of it). However, the mine would actually be in Ortonville’s–and Big Stone County’s–front yard–visible both entering and leaving the county seat on a major highway.

The presentation went on with diagrams showing the evolution of the mine’s footprint that changed dramatically over time to incorporate a rare plant protection area to preserve some of the rare species, wetlands, and ephemeral pools located within the initial, “ideal” mining site. The hammered-home message was that this corporation is willing to bend over backward and expend a great deal of resources to be seen as environmentally responsible.

However, the set-aside area as depicted on the maps is oddly-shaped, suggesting that it would be hard to maintain the protected species within the jags and juts of the designated boundaries, and while the executive summary states that the protection area would be turned over to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge management to administer, there was no indication that BSNWR management had agreed to such an arrangement (BSNWR management was present at the meeting, but did not comment).

The strangest part of the presentation were the videos–especially one showing an aggregate mining detonation at an undisclosed location (which left me wondering why they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–tell us where this video was shot).  The point of the clip was to illustrate how very non-intrusive the sound of such blasts really is, with the presenter enthusiastically urging the tech guy to turn up the speakers and then commenting on how everything was at full volume and it was still so quiet!

They played it over, and over, and over. At least four and maybe five times. You’d hear a little pop and see a huge billow of dust coming out of the hole. The presenter seemed almost beside himself with glee, but for myself and another attendee I spoke with, that huge, uncontained dust cloud was a source of grave concern, and the “true-to-life” sound effects were not really believable. I know when I’ve done recordings, the sounds I’m looking to capture are never as loud and clear as they are in real life–especially when working outside with wind and other background noises.

By the end of Strata Corp’s presentation and the beginning of public comment (which was divided into “for” going first and “opposed” going second), it was 9:15pm. I approached the mike and asked the planning commission to postpone public comment to another meeting time, what with the length of the preceding talk and the lateness of the hour on a school and work night. The commission decided to carry on, since representatives from the company had traveled so far to attend.

No one spoke publicly in favor of the project, and about fifteen citizens spoke against, or with concerns ranging from silica dust, environmental degradation, the corporation’s safety record and reputation, home values, and habitat loss.

At 10:40pm, after all those still present had had an opportunity to speak, the public comment was closed, and the commission recessed. At that point, almost everyone left. I stuck around until a little after 11pm–the meeting was called back to order and the planning commission asked Strata representatives back to the table to respond to the public’s concerns.

The company did give a lot of solid information in their presentation. In my opinion, they also took about twice as long as they needed to get their main points across. Sitting on a metal folding chair for an hour and forty minutes after a long day at work is an exhausting and bone-chilling experience. I was really glad to see so many citizens stick it out, remain present, and make their voices heard.

Altogether, the project would create 6-8 jobs (no promises that they’d be available to locals) and would provide about $20k/year in aggregate removal taxes. And, as I’ve said before, it would also remove a good-sized chunk of our culturally, historically, and environmentally significant “big stones” and leave deep, grassy-edged holes in their place.

The EAW (Environmental Assessment Worksheet) completed by the company does not give enough information or hard data for the public to truly assess the impact of this project. An Environmental Impact Statement would give citizens a much clearer sense of the overall impacts of a project that is expected to go on for 80-130 years. That’s generations.

In considering both the limited benefits of this project for the community and the large amount of our natural beauty and resources this project would extract and export, it’s my opinion that permit approval, if granted, should carry some very significant community-enhancing conditions.

State statute allows communities to impose what conditions they see fit. What is fair here? Asking for support for our schools, parks, and infrastructure seems like a reasonable place to start. The landowners whose property values would be adversely affected would also appreciate consideration.

I think it’s clear that I don’t support this project, though my comments at the meeting were limited to an attempt to give the public time for thought, research, and a little rest after a really lengthy presentation on a work and school night. On personal reflection, there just isn’t much in it for the county, and the guaranteed loss is huge.

I’m also not fond of the comments being grouped into “for” and “against” categories because I think it sets up a dichotomy that privileges one set of opinions and doesn’t allow a comfortable speaking space for those who are undecided and/or have questions or concerns. In other words, it doesn’t allow for a healthy community dialogue about the project.

The Big Stone County Planning Commission did not take action on the conditional use permit that evening–another meeting is set for the beginning of February. Make sure to watch the papers for this one–at the beginning of Thursday night’s meeting, a motion was passed to change the regular meeting date of the commission to the first, rather than second Thursday of each month, due to a scheduling conflict with the county’s attorney.

If a conditional use permit is granted, the aggregate mining proposal goes to the Big Stone County Commission for final approval. You can submit written comments to the Environmental office at the Big Stone County Courthouse. You can also contact your county commissioner–contact information for your district’s commissioner is available on the Big Stone County website.

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4 responses

  1. As one of those in attendance who was growing into that hard chair after several hours, and after listening to all the speakers (I was one also), I want to thank you very much for saying so eloquently what we all feel about this project. As I have said in the past, “The price is too high!” What will it take to get people to “fight City Hall” when they are feeling passionate about a subject such as this? It was with pride that I listened to the speakers state the facts that they spent hours researching and hopefully your site will give the public the push they need to make their feelings known to the people in power. This project just does NOT benefit our county in any substantial way and needs to be stopped. Strata’s track record with the pages and pages of violations posted on the internet proves that they can’t be trusted and should be sent packing! Thanks for providing a place for us to “vent”.

  2. Mike,

    Very accurate and informative article! I was also at the meeting. My house will be within a stones throw of the railcar loading area. I want to encourage you to send a copy of this blog to be published in the Ortonville Independent.

    Thanks for your support, willingness to speak out and for attending the meeting. We are fighting for our homes and need all the help we can get. The local population has been given very little education on this issue and I spoke to many that wanted to attend the meeting but couldn’t. Your summary of events would go a long way for them.

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