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Do we have too many sand mines in LaSalle County? Ashley Williams and Emily Alaimo wear masks taped with red X’s signifying their stand on the Aramoni sand mine. The Utica village board Wednesday voted 5-2 to approve the new quarry on part of 500 acres in Waltham Township.
Wednesday, village officials concluded a six-night proceeding and voted 5-2 (including Mayor Gloria Alvarado) to approve petitions that effectively allow Aramoni LLC of Oak Brook to mine part of 500 acres for industrial sand. The parcels are located north of Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores.
Aramoni partners Steve Schuster and Laura Smith said they were “humbled and grateful” for the proceedings and for the outcome.
“I hope we’ve addressed the concerns of the citizens as well as the planning commission and the trustees,” Smith said.
“There are a lot of unemployed people in La Salle County and a lot of truck drivers and CDLs who need work,” Schuster said. “These are good jobs and we’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
Voting to approve Aramoni were trustees Joe Bernardoni, John Schweickert, Kevin “Chops” Stewart and Ron Pawlak. Though the mayor usually votes only to break ties, Alvarado also voted yes. Voting “no” were trustees Matt Jereb and Jim Schrader.
Jereb had voted against the Illinois Sand project in 2012. Schrader said Aramoni’s proposal didn’t jibe with the village’s comprehensive plan and he didn’t think Aramoni had identified a suitable location.
Two supporters hinted they weren’t entirely thrilled with the project, led by Bernardoni. “Our hands are tied, to a certain extent,” he said.
But Bernardoni also rejected the notion that mining would adversely affect tourism and offered blunt advice on how residents could avoid mining ventures in the future: “If you care about your neighbor, don’t sell your land to a developer. It’s as simple as that.”
Schweickert said Aramoni agreed to concessions and made a good-faith effort to accommodate the village’s concerns. He also hinted that lawsuits and other disputes would invariably arise.
“This fight isn’t over,” he said, “no matter what the board decides.”
Objectors attorney Walt Zukowski said he planned to review some “procedural” issues with how Utica went about approving the Aramoni project. He wouldn’t confirm a lawsuit was among the options but didn’t deny it, either.
The upshot for Utica is 30 full-time jobs plus new revenue that Aramoni says will pump $25 million into the local economy.
Under the revised deal, Aramoni will pay the village $400,000 over the first two years followed by a per-ton extraction fees plus road maintenance and well protection. Aramoni will also conduct indefinite air sampling near Waltham North School.
The new quarry also will cut property taxes for Utica residents, though that figure has yet to be determined. (Consider that Unimin, which launched a $31 million expansion in 2011, added $8 million to this year’s tax rolls and lowered the village tax rate by 24 percent.)
The downside is more blasting (every seven to 10 days during weekdays and daylight hours), more traffic (146 truck loads per day) and, depending on which paid consultant is to be believed, more health risks.
A toxicologist paid by objectors to the project, which would churn out 800,000 tons of sand annually, testified 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.
Aramoni answered that with their own paid consultant, former regulatory engineer John Richards, who testified Aramoni could operate the sand mine safely and with only limited release of crystalline silica. Sand mining, he said, would produce larger particulate that wouldn’t travel far and wouldn’t pose the same health risks as smaller particulate.
“A little moisture goes a long way in binding particles together so they do not release,” Richards said, emphasizing that the washing process would further limit the release of silica.
Ultimately, Utica’s decision came down to revenue and jobs — and whether neighboring La Salle would swoop in if Utica instead told Aramoni to go pound sand.
Earlier, Schuster wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Aramoni could “disconnect” from its annexation agreement with Utica and then annex into La Salle, leaving Utica stuck with the noise and dust while waving goodbye to all the money and jobs. Whether Aramoni could have legally disconnected was debated but now is moot.
In any case, Schuster acknowledged that mining wasn’t Aramoni’s first choice for how best to use the property. He and his partners had hoped to use the Utica-area parcels for commercial development. Market conditions, however, turned south in 2008 and nullified their commercial objectives. Then, a geological study revealed market quality silica sand and a quarry lifespan of up to 25 years.
“In summary, there’s 10.4 percent unemployment in La Salle County, there are hundreds of unemployed union workers in La Salle County,” Schuster said earlier in the proceedings. “We acknowledge and understand people’s hesitation about another mine in the area…but we are good stewards of farm ground and good neighbors.”
Those assurances did little to sway a packed house that stood largely in opposition to the project — including a smattering who wore gas masks Wednesday in silent protest — and to raising the number of Utica area quarries to five. The heavy opposition stretched out the proceedings to more than 28 hours over five nights before Utica finally issued a vote.
The proceedings might have gone longer, as Zukowski asked to have the hearing reopened Wednesday. Alvarado halted that firmly.
“There will be no further public comment,” the mayor declared repeatedly.