On the bluffs above the St. Croix River, near the first Swedish settlement in Minnesota, a battle of wills is raging over efforts to excavate more than 1 million tons of sand and gravel from an old mine.
To the Maple Grove company seeking permits for the work, Tiller Corp., the site represents a gift of bedrock deposits that can be hauled away to make concrete, asphalt and other construction materials.
To many conservationists and Scandia residents, the 64-acre mine would disrupt the tranquility of the nearby St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a national park, and their Washington County city of 4,000 people.
The issue goes to Scandia's planning commission Tuesday for a high-stakes decision on a conditional use permit that Tiller needs to proceed.
The permit doesn't seek to extract the more profitable and controversial ultra-fine "fracking" sand used in oil drilling. But given the surge of mining activity in the St. Croix basin, many Scandia residents want more scrutiny of Tiller's intentions.
"This is the most extreme ... review we've ever undergone in the state for a facility of this size," said Mike Caron, Tiller's land use manager. "We understand nobody relishes having a sand and gravel mine near their property, but we don't get to pick and choose where the deposits lie."
Caron said Tiller won't mine for the silica sand used in oil drilling. "That's not our plan, no," he said last week.
Such assurances don't win over critics like Bill Clapp, a seasonal Scandia resident and a board member of the St. Croix River Association. Regardless of what material is mined, he said, noisy big trucks and machinery don't belong along the river.
"I think it's a bad project," he said. "It's sitting right next to the national park. That's a terrible place to start a big mining operation. You're going to see this 60-foot hole right next to the national scenic byway [along Hwy. 95]. Gravel mining is not going to forward an interest in tourism."
Mining at the old Zavoral site ended in the 1980s, but one of Tiller's selling points for reopening the mine is that the company's reclamation efforts will improve its appearance.
"This is a typical sand and gravel mine that you would have seen in the '50s, '60s and '70s," Caron said. "It looks like a moonscape out there."
A member of a local group that wants the site left alone -- Take Action, Conserve Our Scandia (TACOS) -- said that the growth of trees and vegetation over through the years has already reclaimed the old mine.
"It's not the right place," said Lisa Schlingerman, a local artist. "It's not that I'm anti-gravel, but it's right in the middle of people's houses. It just doesn't seem to be an appropriate place near the river."
Another opponent is Randy Ferrin, a Scandia resident who retired a few years ago from the National Park Service.
"I can't think of a worse place to put a gravel mine," he said. "It's the combination of things -- the noise, the water, the dust, the proximity to the St. Croix. It just doesn't fit Scandia."
The Tiller proposal would launch as many as 500 heavy trucks each day back and forth through Scandia on Hwy. 97 to another site where the sand and gravel would be processed and washed.
Caron said that current truck traffic on Hwy. 97 from Tiller mines north of Scandia in Franconia Township and Osceola, Wis., would be reduced in exchange.
Traffic on Hwy. 97 west from the intersection with Hwy. 95 is "insanity as it is now," Schlingerman said. "It's a very dangerous situation. It's the speed, it's the numbers, it's a bad intersection anyway."
Park Service concerns
The National Park Service, which manages the St. Croix riverway, also is objecting to the Tiller proposal. The agency's main concern is the noise the mine would create and how it might drown the natural "soundscape" of birds, insects and wildlife on the river, said Jill Medland, the park service's environmental coordinator in St. Croix Falls, Wis.
"Clearly it would not be consistent with protecting riverway values," she said.
The Tiller operation, Medland said, would excavate to a depth near deposits of Jordan sandstone, where the finer sand for fracking becomes more accessible. The park service wants the environmental review of the Tiller proposal to address that concern, she said.
Two Tiller operations have been under scrutiny recently for violations. Contaminated water from a mine in Grantsburg, Wis., leaked into the St. Croix River last spring in violation of Wisconsin state laws.
Last month, Tiller ran afoul of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency when it began construction of a sand fracking operation without a proper permit in Harris, near North Branch in Chisago County.
Scandia Mayor Randall Simonson said everyone will have plenty of chances to comment on Tiller's latest plans in public forums.
"No matter what the decision is, it's going to be large and impacting to people on both sides of the fence," said the mayor, who expects the City Council to review the Planning Commission recommendation in January.
"This is a legal process. It's all based upon fact and findings and law, and it cannot be based upon opinion. Minnesota law says so. You've got to keep your emotions out of it."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles