During the summer of 2012, I prepared a survey of the impact of potential silica sand mining in Olmsted County, Minnesota. While doing fieldwork for this project in Elmira Township, I was admiring a particularly nice exposure of St. Peter Sandstone along County Rd 107. A local resident driving by stopped to inquire what I was doing? I told him and he proceeded to give me an impromptu lecture on the issues of silica sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. What I will always remember was that he said his 95 year old grandmother had “mined” sand out of this particular outcrop for her children’s and grandchildren’s sandboxes for 60 years. She’d recently read that this sand was toxic and if you breathed the stuff, it would give you lung problems. She said her kids never got sick from playing in this sand and what was all the fuss about? His, conclusion, “Aw, it’s just those ‘environmentalists’ again spreading rumors about something that don’t exist.”
There are, however, a number of serious problems and potential hazards related to silica sand mining that go beyond sandboxes. These include impacts on air and water quality. A listing of studies addressing these potential impacts can be found on the web site of the Minnesota Issues Resource Guide. One of them is a study by Emily Chapman. She studied air pollution from open sand cars and trucks, as well as at large sand storage piles. She found that sand particles can build up in one’s lungs causing congestion, cough, and other potential health problems. This is especially the case with employees at the sand mines. As a result, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) inspects sand mines and issues permits regulating air quality.
Water quality is also an issue. The increased use of groundwater and the disposal of waste water are concerns. Sand mining requires enormous amounts of water for so-called “washing,” where silt and clay are removed from the course sand. Generally, deep wells are the source of this water. However, chemicals, such as flocculants, can be added to the washing process. They are then in the waste water that can seep into the ground. Potential ground water pollution can occur, affecting the quality of drinking water if this waste water is not properly disposed of. However, low concentrations of these chemicals are likely to have little or no impact.
Another concern involves blasting at the mine site. This is done to break up the thick sandstone layers before bulldozers, bucket loaders, and conveyors haul the coarse sand to the processing/cleaning plant. It is felt that the blasts may lower or reverse ground water flow. If this occurs, the water wells of nearby homes can be affected. Also, it is suspected that blasting can damage the foundations of homes. At this point in time, the only known detriment in sand mining is increased truck hauling in some areas that can have an impact on road traffic congestion.
It is beyond the scope of this report to study these problems and potential hazards in greater depth for two reasons. First, suffice it to say that research on the environmental impact resulting from silica sand mining is both pro and con. I have concluded that the verdict is still out on many of these potential adverse effects. That said, it is interesting that some neighboring counties around Olmsted and in particular Orion Township within that county, have proposed a sand mining moratoriums until these environmental issues can be settled. In nearby Wabasha County, a moratorium has been debated for some time. A silica sand company wanted to build a storage and loading facility on the Canadian and Pacific Railroad near the town of Wabasha. The city’s concern was increased sand truck hauling and blowing dust from uncovered trucks and the storage pile adjacent to property owners. In 2012, the Wabasha City Council decided not to require the sand company to do an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. The debate in this county is continuing. However, in nearby Winona County on July 30, 2018, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found the county’s ban on silica sand mining was neither an unconstitutional limitation, nor a governmental taking without compensation.
Second, and most importantly, the Unimin Corporation’s sand mines are so far immune to some of these environmental issues. It has an exceptional advantage in that it is located adjacent to a major rail line.This means that, other than trucks hauling sand from the mine to the processing plant, they go no further. Hence, there is no truck traffic issue on nearby highways. It also means that, since truck transportation is at a minimum, shipping costs are lower. In addition, since Unimin owns a fleet of sand cars there is little to no backlog in loading the finished sand; thus, no storage problem and potential dust. Even if this was not the case, the sand mine is not located near any heavily populated area. Finally, the use of its own railroad cars to transport sand to markets, such as Texas, results in a tremendous cost saving. Make no mistake, when the Unimin Corporation selected this site for a silica sand mine and plant, it was not just for the high quality Jordan sandstone, but also for its prime transportation location. It is safe; it is rural; and it increases the tax base of Le Sueur County. These attributes are in addition to the many jobs that have been made available.
Native Prairie vs. Mining
In hindsight, it seems inevitable that a highly valued Native Prairie Landscape and a highly valued Industrialized Landscape could co-exist without conflict in such a small area as the Kasota Prairie. Here, cheek to jowl in a geographic sense, was one of the few remaining prairie remnants in the state, sitting on top of the world’s number one producer of silica sand and a neighboring major producer of limestone products. When the Prairie was first mined years ago, there did not appear to be any major conflict of these resource interests. The limestone quarries were of a small scale and scattered. Unimin was a small sand mining company with only one major sand pit near its processing plant. Remember as well, that this was not a prized farming area, so there was no significant competition between agricultural and mining interests. The farms that did exist were of small acreage and used primarily for livestock grazing. Prairie plants and wildlife co-existed with the cows and the quarries. To ensure this, the prairie environment’s future was recognized as worthy of government protection.
The Pittman-Robertson Act passed by Congress in 1937 was put into effect the following year. It provided funding to states for the restoration, rehabilitation, and improvement of wildlife habitat management and research. The idea behind the act was that by creating more and better wildlife management areas, better hunting and recreational activities would occur.This in turn would bring money into state coffers by the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses, recreational gear and services. Also, prior to the act, many species of wildlife were driven to or to near extinction by habitat deterioration. The Minnesota State Legislature selected areas on the Kasota Prairie to be under the Act’s auspices. In particular, the prairie habitat for wildlife, such as white-tailed deer and wild turkey, was to be improved. I remember when I first walked the Prairie seeing old weathered signs that said “State Wildlife Refuge.”
Kasota Prairie Natural and Scientific Area
Later, the Kasota Prairie Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) also aided in prairie preservation. The Minnesota SNA program was set up to preserve the natural features and rare resources of areas deemed of exceptional scientific and educational value in the state.This included some of the remaining tall grass prairie in Minnesota. An area of the Kasota Prairie was designated as meeting the criteria for an SNA. It included 45 acres of a cattle pasture that was returned to native prairie. In addition, small pockets of wolfberry, meadowsweet, and especially wild plum were preserved. This area also provided good nesting and roosting places for wildlife.The SNA is located off Twp. Rd. 140 about six miles south of Kasota with a small parking area by the sign.There are no paths but you are permitted to walk through the area.
Even when Vetter Stone expanded and later acquired the bankrupt Babcock Mining Company, there was little or no concern of any major threat to the prairie. It remained a place where the Native Prairie Landscape and the Industrialized Landscape largely coexisted. Birders, wildflower and nature enthusiasts could abide with the existing mining interests. But, this changed in the 1970s.
Unimin Expansion Concerns
As Unimin began to expand its Jordan sandstone mining in the 1970s, some people felt that the existing prairie environment was becoming threatened. Those people who hiked the area to witness the appearance of spring wildflowers, or hear and see migrating songbirds come back, or to reflect on the changing seasons of the prairie did so with a watchful eye on the growing silica sand mining pits. Although mining the sand to many people left an undesirable imprint on the land, it seemed a tolerable imprint for many years. The overburden piles were a sight one turned away from, even though attempts were made by Unimin to hide their mining operation by planting trees and shrubs on the overburden piles. Actually, a lake that had formed from the extraction of the sand was an addition to the prairie landscape, attracting waterfowl and other birds. But more importantly, more mining meant more local jobs. Relatives and friends worked there. Its tax base added increased funds to the coffers of Le Sueur County. Let’s say, a feeling of economic acceptance seemed to prevail. Mining didn’t look so good, but its revenues did.
That all changed in March of 1979. Unimin announced that it had purchased a square mile of pasture land to the southwest of Kasota in Section 6. And Unimin had written a request to Le Sueur County to re-zone that land from agricultural to mining. To many people, this was alarming news. It meant that mining was likely to expand into a particularly prized part of the Kasota Prairie. In this gently rolling section of land that bordered the river flood plain were fields that had been grazed but never plowed for crops. For years the prairie plants and wildlife were not threatened. But now, concern was on the minds of people. The expansion proposal by Unimin was a signal, interpreted by many, that raised the question ”If mining spreads here, where will it go next?”
Save the Kasota Prairie
At a hearing on the proposed rezoning request in Le Center, Minnesota the next month, a group of citizens became convinced that the Le Sueur County Planning and Zoning Board was not all that straightforward about the future of the prairie environment. A feeling began to grow that maybe the county was turning a deaf ear to their concerns. In response, a group calling themselves Save the Kasota Prairie (SKP) was created.
According to their Newsletter the first order of business was to petition the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (MEQB) to require Unimin to do an Environmental Impact Statement on the acquired land. This was deemed a first step to evaluate the environmental impact of the proposed sand mining operations. On May 17, 1979, a petition with over 1,200 signatures was sent to the MEQB. The MEQB voted not to require an Environmental Impact Statement. As a result of this decision, SKP felt it had no recourse but to go to court to get that ruling changed. SKP’s attorney on May 22, 1980 filed in district court an appeal to have the MEQB decision overturned. A hearing was held in Le Center on May 22, 1980. Although SKP’s lawyer presented a strong case for reversal of the MEQB ruling, the appeal was denied. This was not the end of the appeal process, however. SKP hired other attorneys who appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. They filed their appeal on March 8, 1982.
This action followed a change in attitude by the village of Kasota’s City Council. In the first appeal process, the City Council was not supportive of SKP. It felt that if Unimin’s mining operations were restricted, local jobs would be lost. Businesses in Kasota would also suffer. The Unimin expansion was THE issue in the 1980 city elections. To the surprise of many, Jeri Jansen, a SKP supporter, won over long-time mayor Walt Vetter. who had opposed the efforts of SKP. In addition, two other SKP supporters won seats on the City Council. This clearly was a victory for SKP who now controlled the council and seemingly had “the people” of the town now on their side.
As a result of this election and the appeal process pending at the Minnesota Supreme Court, Unimin decided to negotiate some sort of settlement. The week after the brief was filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court, Unimin and SKP agreed to come together and attempt a compromise. After long discussions, a document called the Stipulation and Agreement between the two parties was formulated. Below is summarized some the most salient parts of the document:
Stipulation and Agreement Between SKP and Unimin Corporation
- SKP agrees to dismiss its appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
- SKP agrees to dismiss its motion in District Court to enjoin Unimin from further disturbing the western portion of the prairie.
- SKP agrees to not appear, write, or lobby in opposition to Unimin’s Kasota Township mining operations, unless Unimin requests waiver or relaxation of its permits (to mine).
- Unimin shall establish a “Restricted Zone” of about 70 acres northwest, west, and south of the pond within which no mining or other activity will be done.
- Unimin shall place the environmental management of this Restricted Zone to a mutually agreeable third party and pay for its management. Public access to this Restricted Zone will be allowed.
- Unimin will place restrictions that this Restricted Zone be preserved and perpetrated as a native prairie ecosystem.
- Later, an addition to the Restricted Zone will encompass a tract north and west of the pond. This will make the Restricted Zone a more or less contiquous tract of about 210 acres (about 90 acres of prairie and 120 acres of flood plain bottomland.
Kasota Prairie Conservation Area
The most important implementation of the Stipulation and Agreement was the formation of the Restricted Zone, called the Kasota Prairie Conservation Area, simply known now as the Kasota Prairie. This area was approximately 120 acres in size, including restored prairie on land previously mined and owned by Unimin. (More will be said about their commendable efforts of prairie restoration.) The Kasota Prairie is introduced to the visitor by a large glacial erratic with the words, KASOTA PRAIRIE, carved into it (see Fig. 15). Remember when we talked about those erratics? What is very meaningful is that before you enter a walking path that winds through the prairie is a limestone block that was shown in Fig. 9.
On top of this limestone slab is a three dimensional relief map of the area. On its side, is the carved inscription, ”What Nature Has Given We Sought to Keep.” This inscription reflects the successful effort of Save the Kasota Prairie in cooperation with the Unimin Corporation to preserve one special part of the Native Prairie Landscape. In this case, conflict led to compromise.
Managing the Prairie
Unimin and Save the Kasota Prairie have engaged in the management of the Kasota Prairie Conservation Area by implementing a plan to both preserve the older prairie and restore new areas that had previously been mined. Toward this end, Unimin has hired a restoration company to burn the prairie periodically and then seed plants. The company maintains 150 prairie plant species, including wild crocus, prairie smoke, plains coreopsis, and a 20 acre field of little blue stem. Periodic burning, such as the Native Americans practiced on the prairie so many years ago, allows the grasses to come back as vibrant and healthy as ever. Burning also kills any woody growth that may be prone to intrude on the environment. Other plants of the prairie come back after burning as well, such as the early prairie violets and later, star grass, pale-spike lobelia, and coneflowers. It is often called controlled burning, in part because only certain sections of the prairie are burned at a time, leaving other parts as the continued home for wildlife. These areas will be burned later. In this way the prairie can keep attracting birds that need a prairie habitat, such as Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Bluebirds, and Eastern Kingbirds. The pasque flowers are also preserved. And what I now enjoy in early spring are the coming of the red-winged blackbirds around the lake that has been created from a mining pit.
In recent years Unimin has made strides to restore areas of the Prairie that formerly had been mined. The open pits where sand has been removed have been filled with overburden. Top soil is then spread and native prairie species are planted. Since 1993, 108 acres of so-called “Restored Zones” have been created. I toured one of these Restoration Zones about twenty years ago and could find no discernible difference between the “old” native prairie landscape from the newly restored one. For these efforts, in 2000, Unimin received the Vegetation Management Association of Minnesota Award for prairie restoration. And in 2008 the Unimin Corporation received international recognition for their contributions to wildlife habitat conservation on the Kasota Prairie by the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC).
Education on the Kasota Prairie
In addition to preserving and restoring prairie plants that enhance wildlife, the educational mission of SKP is also active. For many years there has been an event called Kasota Prairie Day which has introduced people to the varied flora and fauna of the area. Visitors can go on guided tours led by professionals in the fields of plant identification. Representatives from Prairie Restorations, a company in Princeton, Minnesota, have occasionally described how controlled burns have been conducted and native prairie plants seeded. There also is an “Ecology Center Bus.” This converted bus serves as a lab filled with all sorts of plants and wildlife of the prairie. As you walk through the displays, interpreters help you understand the ecology of a prairie environment. All of this has been done to try to ensure that the complex interaction of native vegetation and wildlife can be understood and appreciated.
Many of the initial meetings of the Save the Kasota Prairie organization and the Unimin Corporation were often confrontational. The public perception of these meetings often was that of the “little man versus the big corporation.” There was also a feeling among many SKP members that their concerns were falling on deaf ears by officials in the Le Sueur County government. It was said that “Le Sueur County was the western-most county of West Virginia,” meaning that the Industrialized Landscape was much more important than preserving and restoring the Native Prairie Landscape. Talks and demands went so far as proposed lawsuits. At times, it did not seem that the two parties would ever compromise to set an agenda that was agreeable to both sides. Fortunately, as we have learned, that did not happen. Compromise was reached. As time has gone on, I believe that SKP has been pleased with the involvement of Unimin in this compromise. To the corporation’s credit, they have further enhanced the Kasota Prairie Conservation Area’s preservation and restoration. Good has come out of a conflict of interest. However, what is at issue today is the a further expansion of Unimin’s mining operations to meet the growing demands of silica sand use. The question is, what if any conflicts will arise again and what will be the future of the Prairie?
- Bob Douglas, “A Survey of St.Peter Sandstone in Olmsted County, Minnesota”, Rochester/Olmsted County Planning, November, 2012. ↵
- See Minnesota Issues Resource Guide. Silica sand Mining web site. Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. https://www.leg.state.mn.us/lrl/guides/guides?issue=fracsands ↵
- Chapman, Emily, et.al. Communities at Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest. Boston Action Research. Newton, Massachusetts, 2014. ↵
- MPCA. Air Monitoring at Minnesota Silica Sand Facilities, https://www.pca.state.mn.us/air/air-monitoring-minnesota-silica-sand-facilities. ↵
- Parsen. M. Impacts of Franc Sand Mining…Focus on Groundwater. Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, Madison, WI. 2012. ↵
- Rochester Post Bulletin, Nov. 19, 2014. ↵
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 18, 2018. ↵
- Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Roberstson Act,1937), Department of Fish and Wildlife.Retrieved, 2011 ↵
- Eric Bolen, Wildlife Ecology and Management. Prentice-Hall, 2003, Chapter 2. ↵
- See the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/snas/. ↵
- Save the Kasota Prairie Newsletter, Dec.1979. ↵
- www.skp/newsletter/stipulation. ↵
- Wildlife Habitat Council, 20/20 Vision: Celebrating the Past, Looking to the Future, 20th Annual Symposium, 2008. ↵