It is not easy or comfortable sitting at the point where state government and commerce intersect in South Dakota, which is where Pennington County commissioners have found themselves since Croell Redi-Mix sought to expand its mining operation along Highway 16.
On Tuesday and after weeks of discussion and study, commissioners voted 4-1 to deny the mining company’s plans to expand the gravel pit just a few miles north of Mount Rushmore, otherwise known as the Shrine of Democracy, a monumental reminder that the public’s voice counts.
Croell was seeking a construction permit to expand its quarry to 164 acres in an area zoned general-agricultural. In making the request, Croell pointed out that the Department of Energy and Natural Resources had already issued the company a mining permit, although no public hearing was held prior to the state's decision.
After neighbors of the gravel pit learned Croell's construction permit request was on a Planning Commission meeting agenda, they turned out in droves to oppose the expansion, citing traffic, dust and noise concerns. The request was approved by the planning commission before it was considered by county commissioners, which held public hearings on the matter.
It was on Tuesday when the commission and the estimated 100 people at the meeting learned exactly how lax state oversight of the quarry has been. DENR staffers at the meeting acknowledged they had only inspected the site four or five times in 15 years and that another mine operator on the site had been operating without a state storm water permit for years.
In addition, the DENR staffers were unable to explain how future reclamation efforts at the site would be managed by their office when asked by the county commission.
Given the state's traditional hands-off approach to regulating mining that was on full display at the meeting, it was refreshing to see that four of the five county commissioners — only Chairman Lyndell Petersen voted for the permit — refused to rubber-stamp a state's agency administrative approval of the expansion.
The county commission also voted to impose a moratorium on the issuance of mining permits for up to six months so county zoning ordinances can be reviewed and perhaps improved to add clarity for all parties, which is the right action to take in the wake of this debate.
In this case, the county commission rejected the expansion on the grounds that it was not compatible with general-agriculture zoning, which seems reasonable when you consider that project has nothing to do with agriculture.
More importantly, however, county commissioners listened to their constituents and the public safety officials who raised legitimate concerns about the impact of the additional large truck traffic and dust on a highway that is used by millions of tourists throughout the year.
While we expect private companies to fight for their property rights, we also expect our elected officials to determine what is in the best interests of the residents and those visitors who pump millions of dollars into our tourism industry. And if the state won't do it, then it is appropriate for the county to accept that responsibility.