Letter to the Editor: A recipe for disaster

To the Editor:

Based on a true story, unfortunately…

It was a relaxing Saturday morning, until we opened the mail. I opened a letter from Allamakee County, started reading it and asked, “Honey, what’s a large-scale borrow pit?”

“Why?” she shot back at me, sensing the concern in my voice.

I said, “There’s going to be one in Allamakee County.”

Anna grabbed her phone and searched for ‘borrow pit.’ Her face went pale as she handed her phone to me.

That began a slew of phone calls and late-night searches for information that took us down one rabbit hole after another. And I’m sorry to say, we found a lot more than cute little bunnies. Our concern has kept us up until 1 a.m. each night, researching details and calling everyone we can, to find out more about what is happening to Allamakee County.

What we learned was that a borrow pit isn’t actually borrowing anything. A borrow pit takes soil - and never brings it back. It’s a mining permit. The applicants are planning on taking 23,000 semi loads of dirt out of the ground, to put in coal ash pits. Those ash pits are leaking toxic chemicals into the groundwater, from 75 years of burning coal to make electricity at the Lansing Power Plant. The EPA rules say coal ash pits should be lined first, before being filled; but Alliant is planning to fill the unlined pits anyway.

Then we found out that Alliant’s contractor, Ames Construction, says they will spray water on their trucks and on the land to keep the dust down. But, unbelievably, the water they plan to use is from the wells at the old, decommissioned power plant! The very spot that is full of toxic chemicals!

The toxins will soak into the neighbors’ soil, poisoning the land and the rain will carry the toxins down into our farm and into Wexford Creek. It will more than likely poison the fish in that trout stream, and anyone who eats the fish.  Four miles later, the toxins will flow into the National Wildlife Refuge in the Mississippi River. There, it will poison the ducks.

I told Anna, “And it gets worse. You know those semi-loads of dirt, they plan to travel down Lafayette Ridge Drive and the Great River Road, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday - at 300 loads a day! If you live on those roads, you will see an 80,000-pound semi-truck pass your front yard 300 times a day. But they would have to go round-trip. That would be 600 trips! And listen, they are going to be doing this for 6-7 months!”

“Wow, 23,000 round trips! 14 hours a day? 6-7 months? I can’t even imagine that. An 80,000-pound load limit per truck? How can those beautiful scenic byways withstand that kind of traffic, or that kind of beating?” Anna asked. “Do the people know?”

I said, “I bet they don’t all know. Who can we tell?”  The County is having a meeting April 3 at 4:30 p.m. at the Allamakee County Courthouse to decide if an adjustment to the zoning will be approved. People need to send letters or send an email to: Stephanie Runkle, Allamakee County Zoning Administrator, 110 Allamakee Street, Waukon, IA 52172, or email: srunkle@allamakeecounty.iowa.gov. Stephanie said all comments need to be in writing to be considered.

“An adjustment?”  Anna asked. “What does that mean?”

“That means the County would allow Ames Construction to do something that the area isn’t zoned for - mining. See, it says ‘mining’ in the application,” I said.  “Someone at the County told me that when the first one is approved, another one will go through without any public comment. It will have set a precedent.”

Anna said, “So you mean this area could become a mining area, without any more input from the public?  The animals! The farmland!  The beautiful driftless area? You know there’s nowhere else on earth like this place. This is the Mississippi Flyway, where so many different birds and even butterflies migrate. What will happen to them, when this area is all mined? What about the hundreds of fish, the wildlife in the hills? Will it become like the West Virginia and Western Kentucky of the past? Such beautiful land - gone forever!”

Then Anna started singing a tune recorded by John Denver, “Daddy, won’t you take me back to Allamakee County, by the Mississippi River where paradise lay.  Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in askin…”

“Many people feel they don’t have any power,” I interrupted. “I’ve heard from several people in positions of authority that the matter has already been decided. But I think that people have more power to make a difference than they know. Stephanie Runkle at the County told me that the Board of Adjustment has to take everyone’s comments into account.

She said the sooner people send letters and emails the better.  She will compile everyone’s concerns and add them to the information that goes to the Board of Adjustment, before a final decision is made.”

Anna said, “And I just found out one more thing.  The next borrow pit could be anywhere, in anyone’s backyard. It could be in anyone’s neighbor’s backyard, and you won’t be able to say anything about it. The County won’t say where the next mining permit will be.  But we’ve heard that it’s ‘all ready to go.’ The spot has already been chosen and approved.

It’s ‘ex parte’ (done in the interests of only one party).”

I said, “Wow. That doesn’t seem honest. I know the people at the County are better than that. I know them. I grew up here. I don’t believe that ex parte thing.  That’s got to be a rumor.”

Anna just raised her eyebrows at me and shook her head. So, I called the County to prove Anna wrong. But guess what, Anna was right. The next one could be in anyone’s backyard, and neighbors won’t know until it’s too late. Stephanie Runkle said she couldn’t tell me whose land it was or who the neighbors are.

I asked Anna, “So how can the people of Allamakee County defend themselves?”

She said, “Show up at the meeting at 4:30 p.m. Monday, April 3. Wow, that’s an inconvenient time for people who have to work a day job. Maybe those people can write letters and say we don’t want mining, borrow pits and ex parte in Allamakee County, ever!”

I said, “Everybody needs to write letters. We need as many letters as we can get.  We don’t want to give away our right to decide what’s best for our community.   And if you can, do both.  Write letters and show up!”

Then I looked at my wife and said, “Do we tell Mom?” My mother is 97 years old and her heart is sick. She’s in our home, on hospice.

Anna said, “We have to tell her. She’s the owner of the farm. And you are the trustee. You have to tell her.  That’s where she was born and that’s where her father was born. That’s where she worked and lived all her life. She’s still on this earth, so she has to know.” We walked down the hall and into Mom’s bedroom. We told her what was happening, just 2,000 feet upstream from her farm.

With astonishment, Mom replied, “That is crazy. Somebody is going to get killed on those roads!  I know what that feels like. No parent needs to go through that. That’s how Dawn was killed, and the other two neighbor girls.  Those three beautiful young girls were in a passenger car on a paved two-lane road with farm equipment.  The car had to slow down for a tractor, the truck behind them couldn’t stop fast enough and bumped the car into the path of another vehicle for a head-on collision.  That’s a recipe for disaster, especially on those curvy roads. I know. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my lovely daughter, Dawn, and what life would have been like if she’d gotten to live. That many trucks? That’s crazy! Why can’t they bring the dirt in on barges, like they brought coal to the power plant for 75 years?”

“You’ve got good ideas, Mom,” I said.

She looked at me purposefully, “We’ve got to help these folks. Please talk to them for me.”

I nodded.

Then she added, “What did they say would happen to our farm?”

I said, “The man from Ames Construction said that we could get dirt in our well.”

She exclaimed, “Dirt in our well? Our farm can’t survive with dirt in our well.  Whenever any farmer is in trouble and needs help, we’ve always helped them.  That’s what friends and neighbors do. You need to tell people. Run quick and tell people about this. Tell the good citizens of Allamakee County; they’ll understand.”

Then with tears in her eyes she said, “Tell the good people who work at Allamakee County. They’ve always helped us when we needed it. They are good people.  Maybe they can save our farm and the families who live on those roads.”

I said, “Yes Mom.  I will do that right away.”

Mom said, “They surely won’t take advantage of a 97-year-old woman, would they?”

With as soothing a voice as I could muster, I told her, “I would hope not.”

Please speak up for Mom, for your neighbors, for the animals, and for your right to have a voice in this beautiful Driftless Area. Send letters to Stephanie Runkle, Allamakee County Zoning Administrator at 110 Allamakee Street, Waukon, IA 52172 or email: srunkle@allamakeecounty.iowa.gov.

Dale Reeves
Allamakee County native
Salt Lake City, UT