By Shereen Siewert

TOWN OF MCMILLAN, Wis. — A group of residents in western Marathon County is expressing strong opposition to a proposed five-year conditional use permit for a gravel pit located in the town of McMillan, citing declining property values, well-water contamination, and safety concerns.

About 80 people attended an April 8 town of McMillan meeting to discuss the proposed conditional use permit for Earth Inc., which operates a quarry at M356 Galvin Ave. So many people attended the meeting that fire officials showed up at the town hall amid overcrowding concerns.

Earth Inc. already has a special exception permit for the quarry, which has been operating since 2000. But that permit is soon expiring, and due to 2016 code change the type of permit the company will need to continue operations has shifted, according to Teal Fyksen, land use specialist with Marathon County Conservation, Planning and Zoning department.

During the meeting, which lasted for more than three hours, residents presented officials with a petition and more than a dozen letters urging rejection of the mining lease.

James Mikula, who lives about one mile from the quarry, said the day-to-day operations of the quarry have had a significant negative impact on his property.

“In June of 2016, an uncontrolled blast at the quarry, forcibly shook our house,” Mikula said. “The entire structure shuddered, glass in china cabinets clanged, and I and my wife were shaken.”

Mikula said the increased mining activity, particularly the detonations, as well as the increased traffic and dust associated with running an active quarry are in complete conflict with the peace, quiet and safety for which he and his wife originally purchased their property.

“For us and other residents along Galvin Avenue, we live here for the rural lifestyle, safety, and ease of access on good roads to Marshfield. We have raised our family here and have retired here. This mine is only pilfering value, safety and enjoyment from our property.”

Long standing concerns over safety and land use issues related to abandoned mining sites were addressed in 1993 when the state legislature adopted Chapter 295 of the Wisconsin State Statutes. This statute required the Department of Natural Resources to establish rules to implement the nonmetallic mining reclamation program, requiring operators to have an approved “reclamation plan” on file prior to operating a new mine.

The purpose of the reclamation plan is to achieve acceptable final site reclamation to an approved post-mining land use in compliance with the uniform reclamation standards. The final use plan on file for the McMillan quarry is a fish pond, according to Marathon County Environmental Resources Specialist Lane Loveland.

Mikula said early support for the mining operation was described as “temporary” with “minor inconveniences” to residents. The first contract for the pit was for seven years.

“Twenty years is not temporary, and seismic activity in your house is not minor,” Mikula said. “Please let the lease end and move on, fish or no fish.”

Kimberly Niehaus lives 135 feet from the gravel pit and is also opposed to the renewal. She said she is disappointed that only seven of the 18 letters expressing opinions about the issue were read during the meeting, leaving her with a strong impression that the community’s voices are not being heard.

“Some issues we have are our the safety of our kids,” Niehaus said. “There are 17 kids who are under the age of 15 who live within 300 feet of the pit.  My house has been damaged due to the blasting.  Rock in our yard; our well went bad. And after a year of complaining they put a new one in.”

Loveland said he was impressed by how prepared residents were at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Whenever you’re talking about mining, there’s always controversy,” Loveland said. “It’s a tough subject. It’s one of those situations where you’re balancing private property rights with regulations.”

The meeting ended when town officials unanimously voted to approve the five-year permit, rather than the 10-year permit originally proposed.

Now, the issue goes to the Marathon County Board of Adjustment on April 25.

Loveland said decision-makers will be looking for substantial evidence to support claims that are for or against the mining operation, rather than opinions.

Public comment will be allowed at the Board of Adjustment hearing, and residents can also send letters to be read into the record if they do not wish to appear in person. Fyksen said letters should clearly state that the letter is intended as public testimony to ensure they are included at the meeting.

“I want citizens to have a voice,” Fyksen said. “We encourage them to be heard.”

The hearing is slated for 9 a.m. Thursday, April 25. The location of the meeting will be determined by early next week.