By John D. Taylor
HOT SPRINGS – Several members of the community – including Ed Harvey, Sarah Peterson and Gardner Gray, people against the soil farm High Plains Resources, LLC has proposed to site near Edgemont – were on hand to witness the long-awaited ballot referendum vote count last Tuesday morning at the county courthouse.
County elections officer Terri Halls said the votes were being counted by a 658 ballot counter, a machine that read circles inked black on the ballots. She described the process as a “crazy morning.”
When the dust settled – and the 14-month old ballots were all tallied – Fall River County voters rejected their county commissioner’s actions to permit a “soil farm” to be sited near Edgemont.
The official countywide vote came in at 1,483 votes against permitting the soil farm, and 1,290 votes for it – a 192 vote margin.
The no vote means that High Plains Resources, LLC, the company that planned to create the soil farm, will need to find another location to site their facility.
High Plains wanted to create a facility that could take in oilfield-contaminated soils and expose these soils to open air and repeatedly turn the soils over, a process that is said to remove toxins.
Getting to the long awaited vote count involved a tangled web of legal maneuvering that included a state Supreme Court decision (made on Dec. 9), and county commissioner actions that initially approved the soil farm, then rescinded this, then approved it again.
In late March of 2014, Fall River County commissioners were approached by High Plains to site the soil farm.
Keith Andersen, of Andersen Engineering, representing High Plains, presented the commissioners with a resolution to site the soil farm near Edgemont at the county’s March 25 meeting.
The commissioners quickly approved this resolution. But doing so skirted the formal process of putting the issue on the agenda properly, so the public might be aware of it and have a chance to discuss the proposal.
A short time later, Ed Harvey, of Hot Springs, filed an objection with the state’s attorney office stating that the agenda description didn’t disclose the full scope of project, a violation of open meetings laws.
After Fall River County State’s Attorney Jim Sword brought this issue to the commissioners, in June of 2014 the commissioners rescinded their original resolution and started the process all over again.
The soil farm plans were put on the agenda, public input solicited and the commissioners approved a nearly duplicate resolution to permit the soil farm, under the terms of a solid waste permit to be issued by the state Board of Minerals and Environment.
However, unhappy county residents collected enough petition signatures to get the approval of the soil farm’s site on the November 2014 ballot.
Meanwhile, High Plains filed an injunction against this vote, arguing that the county commissioners didn’t have the authority to rescind their original resolution, because they can only do so if there was a change in size, location or purpose of the proposed facility – and this didn’t happen.
Circuit Court Judge Robert Mandel agreed with High Plains in October of 2014, preventing the ballot count. The ballots were stored in County Auditor Sue Ganje’s office.
Sword appealed Mandel’s decision, at the request of the commissioners, and the case came before the state Supreme Court in October of 2015.
The court issued its decision on Dec. 9, 2015, finding in favor of Sword’s appeal, and deemed that the ballots should be counted, the issue decided by the voters.
The commissioners canvassed (officially approved and certified) the vote last Tuesday at 11 a.m.
Only two county voting districts favored the soil farm:
•Edgemont area voters tallied 247 votes for the soil farm, 156 against.
•Beaver Creek district voters tallied 69 for, 39 against.
Hot Springs’ four districts and Jackson, Cascade and Oelrichs districts all nixed the soil farm. Votes in these districts were:
•Hot Springs: District No. 1 - 135 yes, 189 no; District No. 2 – 146 yes, 201 no; District No. 3 – 143 yes, 185 no; No. 4 – 116 yes, 152 no.
•Cascade - 50 yes, 82 no
•Jackson – 298 yes, 391 no
•Oelrichs - 86 yes, 88 no
After the final vote tally was approved by the commissioners, Susan Henderson, a vocal opponent of the soil farm, told the commissioners, “Don’t you ever do that again.”
While glad the vote went the way it did, Henderson and others worry that High Plains will attempt to site the soil farm on 65 acres of land acquired adjacent to the five-acre tract originally intended to be used.
Also, after the vote, Sword shared information that an attempt by High Plains to nix the voter’s decision, possibly allowing the company to move forward with the soil farm, is still an undecided Circuit Court case.
A suit filed in September of 2014 by Kenneth Barker, of Barker Wilson Law Firm, LLP, representing High Plains, challenges the legitimacy of the vote. Also, High Plains, in December, filed motions for discovery – essentially asking the county to turn over records and reports related to the case -- that will take the case well into 2016, Sword noted.