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Rural Utica residents (from left) Dale Schreck, Kate Schwarz, Jim Lorimer, Joy Konczak, Steve Harmon and Diane Gassman stand Tuesday near a berm built by Illinois Sand Co. for a controversial frac sand quarry. The residents, who opposed the quarry’s annexation into Utica earlier this year, say they now deal with disruptive noise and traffic as well as a surprise road closure on East 11th Road. They plan to attend tonight’s Utica Village Board meeting to lodge protests.
One of the berms being erected by Illinois Sand Co. to protect rural Utica homes from the effects of blasting. Rural Utica residents who opposed the quarry during annexation hearings earlier this year now are complaining about quality-of-life issues stemming from the excavation of such berms.
Trying to head off Old Man Winter, contractors have been scrambling to clear the way for a controversial quarry in rural Utica to begin operations in 2013. Contractors working with Illinois Sand Co. have been excavating berms needed to cushion homes from blast concussions and also are laying the groundwork for a roadway into the future mining site of more than 500 acres. They’re moving fast to avoid the first snowfall. But some of Illinois Sand’s neighbors — many of whom weren’t happy with the quarry coming to Utica in the first place — are unhappy with Illinois Sand’s recent efforts. Steve Harmon lives about 200 yards away from the north edge of the berm. Over the past three or four weeks, he’s been bothered by the traffic and by the seemingly endless beep of backup signals from the trucks and heavy equipment. “The noise is pretty much throughout the day,” Harmon said. “Once they get the mine going, it’s going to be 24 hours, 7 days a week operation. That’s a big issue with us. “The main concern is our wells, which could be damaged through the process of blasting, and the operations will consume a lot of water. So we’re afraid our wells could go dry.” Diane Gassman, also of rural Utica, is upset not only with the seven-day-a-week noise but with the abrupt closure of a portion of East 11th Road for 10 straight days starting Oct. 29, plus a few hours again this past Sunday. “We were never notified that any construction was going to start,” Gassman said. “We just saw equipment starting to move in and then one day the road was closed. “They’re basically treating this road like a construction zone,” she said. There are no flaggers to control traffic — nothing. It’s a safety concern.” Gassman and her neighbors plan to attend tonight’s meeting of the Utica Village Board to lodge protests. Mayor Fred Esmond said Tuesday said he was as surprised as anyone when residents advised him a portion of East 11th Road was closed for construction. “They apologized,” Esmond reported. “The contractor didn’t do a few things he was supposed to do.” An Illinois Sand executive did not return a call seeking comment, but La Salle attorney John Duncan confirmed contractors are adhering to a 6 a.m.-4 p.m. schedule to beat the first snowfall. “They’re racing against time,” he said. Duncan acknowledged the residents should have been notified about the road closure but said the company cannot do anything about the back-up signals, which are required by law. He noted the noise would recede as excavators dig deeper into the ground, which should effectively contain the unwanted sound. As for the wells, Duncan said the company agreed during the annexation hearings to assume all liability for blast-related damage to local wells. Signed contracts will be made available to all residents once the litigation between homeowners and Illinois Sand is settled. Duncan noted that Illinois Sand cannot realistically address any residential concerns until the lawsuit is put to rest. “Since this is in litigation,” he said, “it’s a delicate situation to talk to them.” More than 100 rural Utica residents largely opposed Illinois Sand’s petition to annex 562 acres into the village to mine frac sand. Residents then criticized the village board for a 5-1 vote (trustee Matt Jereb opposed it) to annex the project despite neighbor protests and a recommendation against annexation by the village planning commission. Illinois Sand overcame such objections with the promise of 70 full-time jobs — plus 160 indirect or ancillary jobs — some $5.5 million brought into the local economy and a cash donation of $400,000 to Utica in lieu of impact fees. An executive for Illinois Sand (a subsidiary of Illinois Cement) once estimated the site would produce 100 million tons of sand before being effectively depleted over the better part of a century. At current market prices of $100 to $130 per ton, Illinois Sand could reap $10 billion in gross revenues over the life of the project. The rural Utica project is distinct from a sand mine to be developed on 314 acres of farm land near the east entrance of Starved Rock State Park.