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Kandiyohi County wins latest round in gravel pits lawsuit

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County has won the latest round in litigation regarding the environmental review of gravel pits near Eagle Lake.

In a ruling filed March 10 by District Judge George I. Harrelson of Marshall, the court ruled in favor of the county and Duininck Bros. Inc. of Prinsburg.

Harrelson wrote that the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners took a "hard look" at the environmental issues when deciding not to require Duininck Bros. Inc. to complete an environmental impact statement.

Kandiyohi County Attorney Boyd Beccue said Monday he was pleased with the court's decision.

John Mack, the New London attorney representing a citizen organization that calls itself Citizens Advocating Responsible Development, said he was "surprised" with the ruling and said an appeal is possible.

A series of appeals between the county and the citizen group has been going on for five years. The legal wrangling began when the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners voted in 2003 that an environmental assessment worksheet prepared by Duininck Bros. for the permitting of gravel pits near Eagle Lake was adequate and that a more extensive review, called an environmental impact statement, was not needed.

Citizens Advocating Responsible Development objected and filed a lawsuit on the basis that the county did not consider the "cumulative" impact of numerous gravel pits in the area.

The District Court ruled in favor of the citizens in 2004.

The county appealed that decision and in 2005 won a favorable ruling from the Appeals Court.

Citizens Advocating Responsible Development appealed that decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which told the county it had to redo the process to determine if an environmental impact statement was needed or not.

The Supreme Court further said the county had to consider cumulative environmental impact in the decision-making process.

In response to the Supreme Court order, the county hired Bolton & Menk Engineering of Willmar to provide a new environmental assessment worksheet for the Duininck Bros. proposal. In a report to the commissioners in April of last year, the engineering firm concluded no further study was needed.

That report was roundly criticized during the public hearing, by government agencies and citizens, for being unscientific and poorly written with little or no expert data included. The report compared gravel mining to farming, saying mining involved "simply moving the soil around."

Duininck Bros. reimbursed the county the nearly $8,000 that Bolton & Menk charged for completing the study.

The county zoning staff then produced a supplemental document. That information was given to the commissioners on a Monday night, and the next morning the commissioners voted that no further review was necessary. There was no public review or comment on that staff report.

It was this final step in the process to which Citizens Advocating Responsible Development objected.

Mack questioned whether the Kandiyohi County Board "really tried to do anything" to respond to the Supreme Court's order or if the county "attempted to reach the same result and sandpaper themselves" so they'd "look better" to the court.

In his memorandum, Judge Harrelson said the county "genuinely engaged in reasoned decision-making" and collected substantial evidence on cumulative potential effects to support its conclusion the gravel pits would have no cumulative impact to Eagle Lake.

Beccue said the latest ruling shows the judge "clearly approved" of the procedure adopted by the county in response to the Supreme Court's direction and the county "did its best to comply with the remand from the Supreme Court."

The county "did exactly what it was asked to do," Beccue said.

Roger Bengtson, a member of the Citizens Advocating Responsible Development, said Eagle Lake residents have worked hard to protect water quality there, which is why they have continually challenged the county's actions. "I think it's something we all believe in, and that's why we've asked the questions we've asked," he said.

He said he hopes that, in the long run, the challenges will have a positive impact on the county's environment and how commissioners make future decisions.

The county's case has drawn attention to the issue of cumulative impact on a statewide level and could change the way state environmental regulators apply that standard to permits.

Gary Geer, Kandiyohi County zoning officer, said the litigation has reinforced the importance of following state regulations, which he said the county has done.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners is expected to receive an update on the latest court action at its meeting today.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750