Expansion of Unimin
“Stone is lasting; all life ends in death,
but stone lives on.”
– Michael McLaverty
As previously discussed in Chapter 6, the demand for silica sand has grown exponentially with the increase in fracking. Unless some other alternative can be found to break open the oil and gas from shale, silica sand will continue to be used. Anticipating this demand has meant an unprecedented expansion of Unimin’s mining and sand processing facilities.
Acquisition of Land
Unimin was clearly looking to the future of its operations as they systematically began acquiring land and property over the last ten years or so. When they first began intensive mining operations in the 1970’s, Unimin owned approximately 700 acres on the Prairie. This was primarily land being mined adjacent to their office and cleaning and processing plant. Since that time, they have acquired over a thousand additional acres, mostly to the north and south of their first mines. The Le Sueur County Plat Book for the year 2016 shows the extent of those land holdings One of the first land acquisitions was the Vetter I and II mines, north of the Kasota Prairie Conservation Area (KPCA). The South Mine, adjacent to the Conservation Area, opened in 2014. When mining began, there were about a dozen property owners on the land now mined by Unimin. There are perhaps three owners now. Today, from the city limits of Kasota to the Blue Earth County line, it is mostly Unimin land.
After land purchases, the removal and demolition of houses and farm buildings and the sealing of water wells and gas lines has occurred. There is consequently a look of desolation on the landscape. There are just not that many people left. The remaining landholders are obviously holding out for either more money or have such an affection for the prairie environment that they won’t sell. Clearly, though, their properties are surrounded, or will be, by mines. Unimin has also constructed an additional sand processing facility near its old one. This building is twice the size, with a vastly increased capability of cleaning and washing silica sand. The change from livestock pasture, small farms, and non-farm homes in the area just to the south of Unimin’s first mines, to land that is now being mined is dramatic. And there have been other changes.
Native American Archeology Sites
There are numerous archeological sites of Native Americans that will be threatened if not already destroyed by this expansion of mining. As reported, in 1996, as required by law, Archeological Research Services did a study of the proposed Vetter mining sites. They recommended that a number of prehistoric Native American habitation areas, particularly on the Vetter I and VII proposed mining sites be preserved by putting them on the list of National Register of Historic Places. To date, I do not believe this listing has happened, and mining has taken place. In all probability, the South Mine contains significant archeological sites as well.
Partial Road Closure
In June of 2014 Twp .Rd 140 (or 468th Street) just south of Kasota intersecting Le Sueur County Highway 21 was closed to through traffic, except for Unimin’s vehicles. It apparently was more economically and physically efficient for their new South Mine to dig across part of the existing Twp. Rd 140; hence, the road closing. The Le Sueur Board of Commissioners permitted this road closure. As a result, public access to the Kasota Prairie Conservation Area was only possible by driving further south about two miles on Hwy 21, then, turning right onto Le Sueur Cty 101, then three miles or so back to Twp. Rd 140, and then continuing north for 4-5 miles. Consequently, this “detour” makes it somewhat difficult for many folks to “find” the KPCA.You have to get to it now by a back door so to speak. In short, while not cutting off access, the partial closure of Twp. Rd. 140 has made it more time consuming and confusing to reach the KPCA.
The View From the Kasota Prairie Conservation Area
The small portion (less than a quarter of a mile) of Twp. Rd. 140 that is public access and leads to the KPCA from the west is bounded by the open pit of the South Mine. It is so massive that it seemingly shrinks the entrance to KPCA. A few years ago, before the vegetation on the berm developed, those who went to the Kasota Prairie as a place of refuge and tranquility were in for a real shocker, to put it mildly. Mining with its noise and trucks was being done 50 feet from the entrance. The South Mine is now largely hidden by a high berm covered with vegetation. But former visitors know that KPCA is now nearly surrounded by mining. Thus, I believe the role of KPCA as a preserve of Native Prairie habitat and solitude has been diminished. Let me explain further.
I believe the longer route to get to KPCA and the recent adjacent mine with its associated industrial activities has limited its use. Although Biology and Environmental Studies classes from Gustavus Adolphus College still conduct field trips there, they have decreased in recent years. I have observed a decline in the number of prairie birds. Chad Heins, a Biology teacher at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato has had discussions with the non-game Department of Resources for this area They have told him that while there are a number of bird species listed as threatened that inhabit the Prairie, there is nothing that can be done about it. On a positive note, after a number of year’s absence, SKP and Unimin on September 15, 2018 held an open house day at KPCA . Unimin had displays of their restoration and conservation programs and the Ecology Center Bus was present. I was there with a friend whose children did not want to leave. Attendance was excellent, which was a good sign that KPCA is still very much appreciated and supported by many people.
The Future of the Kasota Prairie
In closing, what lies ahead for the Kasota Prairie? In the short term, the Unimin Corporation merged with another mining company, Fairmont Santrol, in June of 2018. Its new name was the Covia Corporation. Ned Pekrul, Covia’s plant manager said in a statement to the Mankato Free Press, “Even as the company has changed, it hasn’t changed how we relate with Save the Kasota Prairie and our management practices on the Prairie.” This presumably means that the Unimin will continue to honor the agreement with Save the Kasota Prairie that was signed years ago. And why not? Clearly, plenty of additional land for mining has been acquired since the agreement was signed.
What about the long term future of the Prairie? In an interview with author Vince Beiser on National Public Radio he told of “running out of sand.” On April 8, 2016, Unimin announced that it was laying off 42 employees for the week due to a decline in orders for fracking sand. Drew Bradley, the chief administrative officer, said that sand orders from its plant fell to zero the week before. Although there are some signs that fracking is declining, there is no doubt that the demand for silica sand will continue. Unimin, as has been shown, has acquired enough acreage to meet any demand for silica sand in the years to come.
Clearly, the two landscapes on the Kasota Prairie–the Native Prairie and the Industrialized–are in spatial juxtaposition, but that does not have to mean environmental conflict. It seems certain that KPCA will remain a viable prairie preserve. In addition, the Kasota Prairie SNA just down the road is now managed by the Nature Conservancy and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and will continue to be a site for scientific studies of the prairie environment. It could well be the case that former pasture and farm land that has been acquired for potential mining by Unimin will in the intervening years serve as an additional unexpected prairie habitat, albeit marginal in nature.
Paul Gruchow’s words at the beginning of this book continue to ring true.The Prairie has welcomed “strangers” and it still teaches us the virtue of ideas. There have, indeed, been many “strangers” bringing to the prairie different ideas for its use. First, it was a managed habitat by Native Americans. Then, although it is environmentally ironic, it was a place where rock made it so unsuitable to plow that much of the native prairie was saved. Now, it has become one of the most advantageous places in the country to mine rock. There will undoubtedly be more “strangers” in the future. Can the Kasota Prairie continue to be a model for the coexistence of the Native Prairie Landscape and the Industrialized Landscape? Let us hope so.
- Le Sueur County, Minnesota Plat Book. Farm and Home Publishers, Ltd. Le Sueur, Mn. 2016. ↵
- See Footnote 7, Chapter 2. ↵
- Chad Heins, email, November 10, 2017. ↵
- Mankato Free Press, August 26, 2018.p. A 1. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Unimin (Covia) is now part of SCR-Sibelco of Belgium. ↵
- National Public Radio, August, 5, 2018. ↵
- Mankato Free Press, , Mankato Minnesota, April 8,2016, p A 1. ↵