Allen County Planning Commission members voted unanimously Thursday evening to recommend Monarch Cement Company be given a zoning exception to remove shale from land it owns north of Humboldt. The exception would not affect agricultural zoning of the land.
The planners did not recommend a preferred route for Monarch trucks to follow in hauling shale about 4 miles to the company’s plant at the south side of Humboldt. That will be left to county commissioners to decide when they rule Aug. 4 on the exception.
The hearing carried on for nearly 2 1/2 hours.
Commentary was prefaced by Walter Wulf Jr., president of the company, who noted Monarch had been in business since 1908, had 165 employees, as well as 35 retirees who drew pensions from the company. With the issue being land outside the immediate domain of Monarch, Wulf pointed out the company owns 17 houses — three on property involved in the proposed mining — it rents. Much of the land it owns, including that in question, is leased to area farmers.
He also observed Monarch paid $850,000 in property taxes last year, and in 2010, 2011 and 2012 its ad valorem tax bill was “more than our net income.”
Kenny Miller, vice president for cement manufacturing, set the table for the hearing, explaining what Monarch wants to do, including that it had made every effort to rectify concerns that arose during a similar hearing for a zoning exception on the same property in February 2014.
Miller said Monarch proposed to remove shale from only about 180 acres, three miles north of Humboldt, with 128 acres — first to be mined — west of the Southwind Rail Trail. Core samples show the shelf of shale on that property is about 30 feet thick and is expected to be sufficient to meet Monarch’s needs for more than 40 years.
The plan is to mine west of the trail first, starting in the northwest corner, and then bridge the trail to continue mining on the east side, years from now. The east property contains 53 acres.
Miller said Monarch was eager to open a borrow pit on the site because “Monarch’s existing shale supply is limited and extremely shallow at our current locations, east of Humboldt.” Later it was spelled that shale laid only a foot or two thick above limestone formations east of Humboldt and with present zoning exceptions current supplies would last only another six months.
A second, and important, aspect of the north site shale, Miller said, is “the chemical composition and quality of the shale … meets all of the specifications for Monarch’s manufacturing process and mix designs.” Without going into specific detail, he said shale at other sites was not as compatible.
Miller stressed no blasting would occur at the north site and no limestone would be removed. The company has ample supplies of limestone in quarries nearer the plant.
A year ago, an overriding concern of neighbors was Monarch using 1300 Street, a rock road, as a haul route. This time Monarch wants to build a road of its own from the borrow pit to old Highway 169 and carry shale directly south through Humboldt. An alternative mentioned — not by Monarch — was south to K-224 at the north edge of Humboldt, east to U.S. 169 and then to the plant over what for years has been known as Tank Farm Road, south of town. Commissioners will decide whether to make a specific haul route part of the exception document.
Miller said traffic flow surveys indicated nearly 2,100 vehicles used the old highway between Iola and Humboldt each day. The anticipation is 200 truckloads of shale will be taken from the borrow pit each week, with transport normally three days a week. Statistically that would mean traffic flow would increase less than 5 percent a week, Miller said. He also pointed out trucks have a presence on the old highway, including 18-wheel transports carrying grain, cement and oil.
As for the old highway’s structural integrity, Miller related that Bill King, director of Public Works for Allen County, had cleared the road for Monarch traffic, citing a study done by the county’s engineering firm, Schwab-Eaton. Also, Miller reported Sheriff Bryan Murphy did not think additional traffic would pose a safety concern.
A 100-foot grass buffer will remain around borrow pits, ensuring the tree-lined rail trail remains unaffected. Miller said Monarch would reclaim mined land according to state regulations and likely permit the pits to fill with water and become small lakes. Reclamation will occur when shale reserves are exhausted, more than 40 years from now.
OPPONENTS had other views.
Dave Scantlin lives just north of Humboldt Hill, half a mile or so from where shale mining would start.
His immediate concern is dust carried by prevailing south winds, and health concerns for himself, his wife and others. Scantlin also thought safety considerations on the old highway were underestimated. Monarch’s rebuttal: Shale and most other material removed would be damp beyond the first few inches, and wouldn’t generate dust.
“I counted 135 cars and trucks” on the road in one hour, Scantlin said, at a time when workers leaving B&W Trailer Hitches, in Humboldt, and Gates Corporation, at the south edge of Iola, were not in the mix. “I think it’s a bad deal going down old 169.” He assessment is haul trucks entering the old highway from Monarch’s private road will create a traffic bottleneck.
Scantlin also wondered when rain run-off was pumped from the borrow pit if it would flood ditches in his area and cause wash-outs. Jason Hawley, who also lives north of the hill, also had concerns about water, since his family draws daily consumption from a well.
Brent Wilkerson, who deals with environmental issues for Monarch, said water removed from the borrow pit would be diverted to the southwest, and the company was bound by state and federal regulations having to do with water and its flow.
Nicole Hoepker lives east of the proposed mine site. She is troubled by removing prime agricultural land from production, but more so with the safety of motorists having to confront a proliferation of haul trucks on the old highway and children who, she thinks, would be at-risk while walking and biking in Humboldt if the trucks were to go through town, one every six minutes or so.
“It’s destruction of farmland,” Hoepker said. She asked about other sites.
To put the north site in perspective in relation to farmland, it was noted that shale at two-foot depth would have to be taken from 3,000 acres to equal what could be taken from the 180 acres of the north site, “the most economical piece of property we own,” Miller said.
Allen Ford, a union representative working at Monarch, expressed the opinions of a large contingent of employees in a crowd that approached 100: “We support” the exception. “It’s our livelihood. Monarch is a big part of Humboldt and Allen County.”
Foes didn’t overtly disagree with Monarch’s economic importance to the area, but several said farming was their livelihoods, and wondered, in not so few words, if permitting the exception trumped road safety over the next 60 years — the time frame for taking all of the shale and moving it to the plant.
Lyle Herder and Ron Herder, who live along the highway where the Monarch trucks would travel, worried about the safety concerns with the increased traffic.
Depression of property values also was an issue for the Herders.
Comments hinting at Monarch caring mostly about itself, spurred Karen Emerson, a company employee, to step forward. “Monarch isn’t anti-agriculture,” Emerson said. “We rent a lot of land for farming and we have 17 rentals (houses),” three of which will be on property near the borrow pits. “And you’d be surprised how much Monarch contributes” to a variety of local causes.
Marilyn Jenkins, owner of land to the east, also railed about destruction of farmland and topsoil loss, things “that we need to be concerned about.” A letter from Mike and Barb Geffert expressed similar thoughts, along with ever-present safety concerns.
A letter from Sunflower Rail-Trails Conservancy, Inc., owner of Southwind Rail Trail, said it was not opposed to the zoning exception and shale mining, provided steps were taken to suppress noise and keep unsightly mining under wraps.
Helen Harrington, egged on by comments she apparently found offensive, jumped to her feet. “I’ve been at Monarch (for years) and it’s outstanding,” she said. “We need to work together to keep business in Allen County,” after having lost several, including Haldex and Herff Jones.
Larry Hoepker took Monarch to task for damaging roads — Tank Farm Road in particular — without paying for repairs. After several Monarch officials said the company had participated financially in repairs, but without specifics, Jenkins leaped forward to report she had spent time in the courthouse, including discussions with King, and could find no instances of Monarch doing so. King “finally gave up and said he couldn’t find anything,” she said.
An aside: With Monarch paying $835,000 in property taxes last year, about $100,000 of that went to the county’s Public Works Department, which is responsible for road and bridge repairs and maintenance.
As the session wore down, Curt Whitaker, who owns trucks that haul by contract much of Monarch’s raw materials, said giving up 128 acres of farmland for 40 years of jobs and security for Humboldt was a small price to pay. As with the foregoing aside, he pointed out “we all pay taxes on roads and no business (inferring farming) is special;” he, too, has farming interests. Also, he stated the obvious, that “it is Monarch’s property.”
That opened the door for Dale Wiles, who lives a stone’s throw to the west of Monarch’s property, to shuffle forward. “I farmed and hauled cement for Monarch,” he said. “I know we need to keep farmland and we need to keep all those people working. Is it better to dig off 128 acres or 3,000,” with two feet or less of shale. “My only concern is their trucks going out onto old 169,” with traffic speeding over Humboldt Hill half a mile to the north.
“There’s no reason why we can’t get along,” he said. Everyone “can do what they want. If they asked to buy my property, I’d say no,” but that wasn’t the case with landowners who sold to Monarch. “It’s their land and they can do with it what they want.”
KEITH BEEMAN, one of the planners, moved to recommend an exception for Monarch; it died for lack for a second, because it didn’t deal with a haul route.
Mitch Bolling then repeated Beeman’s motion, and added planners give commissioners the responsibility of deciding the haul-road issue. Beeman’s second led to a vote, with Marvin Stanley, Denise Mentzer and Harry Lee joining to make it unanimous. Absent were planners Steve French and Jim Wildschuetz.