Topsoil gone forever

Peat mining upsets neighbors

Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Sandra Hamm of rural Morrison has been watching some of what she said is the richest farmland in the United States being destroyed by the removal of peat to be sold and used for gardening. "We can't afford to give up this land," Hamm said.
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
A former pump housing sits in a flooded peat mine next to Bernie Baar's field in rural Morrison. The field is pumped while the excavating is taking place, then the pump is removed and moved. The water table then floods the mine.
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
A worker in Bernie Baar's potato field in rural Morrison works to help drain the flooded ground. Peat mining in adjacent fields causes water levels to rise next door, hampering planting efforts, Baar said.
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Bernie Baar looks out over a drainage ditch that runs between his field and a pair of flooded peat mines. The ditches do little to keep water from seeping into his field.

MORRISON – As far as Sandra Hamm is concerned, the richest farmland in the United States is going into Walmart bags. She wants to stop it.

In recent weeks, Hamm has been speaking out against the removal of peat in western Whiteside County. Peat is a highly organic, topsoil material found in marshy or damp regions, considered useful for gardening.

The peat is in the ancient riverbed of the Mississippi, which changed course thousands of years ago. Companies started mining it more than three decades ago. Farmland is purchased to remove the topsoil.

This spring, the operations moved north of Garden Plain Road, west of Morrison. That is where Hamm lives. She and some other residents oppose the practice of removing the rich topsoil.

“It’s destroying farmland,” Hamm said. “We can’t afford to give up this land. The world’s population is exploding.”

The residents point to south of Garden Plain Road, where companies have removed topsoil. The stripped land is no longer good for farming. Pools of water remain. Ducks and geese are common.

At least two companies mine for peat in Whiteside County – Markman Peat Co. and Scott’s Hyponex Corp. It’s no secret where much of the peat goes. On a recent day, 21 Walmart trailers sat on a spot along Fenton Road.

A representative of Markman said his firm had no mining north of Garden Plain Road, but declined to provide more information. A local supervisor at Scott’s didn’t return a call for comment.

‘They’re in my face’

Recently, Hamm submitted a guest column to Sauk Valley Media about her opposition to peat mining. She also placed a series of signs in her front yard that read, “For 10,000 years, this valley gave. Then strip miners dug it a grave.”

She even wrote a letter to the area’s congresswoman, Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, who responded that she knew mining processes can be disruptive.

Hamm wasn’t satisfied with the answer.

“It’s not disruptive; it’s lethal to land,” she said. “You’re destroying it forever.”

On a recent day, Hamm sat at her kitchen table with her husband, Don “Butch” Hamm, and neighbors Jerry Engelkins and Mary Jo Gooley to discuss peat mining. The Hamms moved 3 years ago to the area north of Garden Plain Road, while their neighbors have lived there for more than three decades.

Asked why she was voicing her concern now, Hamm responded, “They’re in my face.” Dug-up piles of topsoil are near her house.

Engelkins is concerned about peat mining’s impact, specifically the trucks that haul out the material, on the roads of Union Grove Township.

“The roads aren’t equipped to handle the traffic,” Engelkins said. “We pay taxes for blacktop roads.”

Gooley said the peat ends up on roads, making them slippery.

Stuart Richter, Whiteside County’s planning and zoning administrator since the 1980s, said he has received his first complaints about peat mining in recent weeks.

“It’s affecting people it didn’t affect before,” he said. “Does the county have a right to regulate this operation? It’s possible the county does, and it’s possible it doesn’t.”

He said he is looking into the matter.

Both Whiteside and Lee counties have processes in which zoning changes must undergo agricultural assessments, with the goal of preserving prime farmland.

Operations don’t fall under state rules

Robert Farabaugh of the state Department of Natural Resources said Whiteside County’s peat mining operations don’t fall under state surface mining regulations. Such rules apply only to operators who dig deeper than 10 feet or more than 10 acres a year.

He said he is not aware of other such operations in northwestern Illinois.

Union Grove Road Commissioner Arnold Vegter said he doesn’t expect much damage.

“They’ll be hauling more in the summer months,” he said. “The roads are a lot more stable in the summer months because of the dryness of the weather. Obviously, any more traffic you have on a road, the more wear it will show, whether it is car or truck traffic. I don’t think it’ll be the truck traffic that they think.”

Hamm, who lived most of her life in Iowa, acknowledges that she never gave much thought about where peat comes from before moving near Morrison.

“As they strip the land, they move on and on,” she wrote in her recent column. “They can’t renew it; they can’t replenish it. It’s gone. ... Do we have to stand by watching helplessly while they willfully destroy it?”

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