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Five nights and 28 hours of testimony weren’t enough for Utica officials to decide whether to admit a new sand mine into the village. They want another week to think about it.
Late Tuesday night, village officials wrapped up a public hearing on Aramoni LLC’s request to mine industrial sands from some of 500 acres located north of Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores.
A decision seemed imminent enough that a packed house at Grand Bear Lodge stuck around past the witching hour to see if the Utica Village Board would render a vote.
Instead, the board adjourned at 1 a.m. Wednesday after tabling the question until a special hearing set at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, again at Grand Bear.
And there may not be a decision that night, either. Board members dropped hints they may tack on additional requirements for Aramoni and the potential list includes buyout options for adjacent homeowners and a tipping fee to be set aside for mine reclamation. The postponement provided an anticlimax to some emotional testimony and closing arguments.
Peru attorney Walt Zukowski, representing a group of opponents, rested his case by imploring the village to turn Aramoni down flat. He argued the village had cut a “terrible” deal with Aramoni and that expanding sand mining would thwart the village’s ability to develop tourism and commerce.
“You (will be) a slave to the sand industry,” he warned. “Your economy will rise and fall based on the sand industry.”
Aramoni lawyer Jim Andreoni called that a “red herring” and a “bad argument,” pointing out that Mississippi Sand established a mine near the east entrance of Starved Rock State Park with no detrimental impact on tourism.
“The sand mine will put $25 million … (into) the schools, the village and La Salle County,” Andreoni said. “These are good jobs with good benefits and retirement benefits.”
The prospect of being surrounded by sand mines brought out legions of Utica-area residents in opposition. The hearing was moved from Utica Village Hall to more spacious Grand Bear Lodge to accommodate a standing-room-only crowd.
Many in attendance still are stinging from the not-less-controversial Illinois Sand project. Homeowners warned of more dust, noise, traffic, blasting damage and, not least, health hazards.
The latter point occupied most of the final two nights of the hearing.
At a previous hearing, a toxicologist testified the mining would produce dangerous dust that could travel hundreds of miles. Dr. Crispin Pierce recommended extensive monitoring but emphasized that Utica already has levels that are “very close” to state and federal safety limits.
At the final session begun Tuesday night, Aramoni trotted out a rebuttal witness to challenge Pierce’s analysis.
John Richards, a former regulatory engineer and now a paid consultant, testified Tuesday that Aramoni could operate the sand mine safely and with only limited release of crystalline silica, found in the earth’s crust and routinely released by tilling or driving unpaved roads.
Richards disputed Pierce’s testing standards and said sand mining would produce larger, coarse particulate that wouldn’t travel far and wouldn’t pose the same health risks as smaller particulate. He noted, too, that the washing process would further limit the release of silica.
“A little moisture goes a long way in binding particles together so they do not release,” Richards said.
Zukowski asked Richards if he considered that Utica would, counting Aramoni, have five active quarries churning out crystalline silica.
“You wouldn’t disagree that having five quarries increases the possibility of ambient leakage from the facilities, would you?” Zukowski asked.
But Richards stood behind his data showing low releases. “Not necessarily,” he answered.
Safety aside, the most persuasive argument may yet be whether Utica is stuck with Aramoni whether they wanted mining or not.
Aramoni and the village had entered a pre-annexation agreement (on some of the affected parcels) and there were divergent legal opinions on whether Utica could renege on the deal without risking Armoni cutting a deal with La Salle. That would leave Utica with the dust and detritus but none of the money.
Zukowski insisted the case law suggested Aramoni couldn’t “disconnect” from the pre-annexation agreement and that Utica held great leverage.
While Aramoni could try their luck in a court of law, Zukowski allowed, “their chances (of winning) are as good as the Cubs winning the World Series this year.”
Andreoni said Zukowski “overstated” his petition on disconnecting, but otherwise declined to offer an opinion on whether Aramoni could have disconnected.