By Mark Fischenich
---- — MANKATO -- It was called a "Neighborhood Open House," and the invitations sent by Jordan Sands began with the salutation "Dear Neighbor," but many of the dozens of people on hand clearly wished that the folks next door would drop plans for the big addition they're planning to construct this fall.
Jordan Sands is nearing approval on the final permits needed to construct a silica sand mining and processing operation just north of Mankato. Many of the affected residents and local environmentalists who came to the Caledonia Community Center Thursday night arrived with questions and skepticism but also with typical southern Minnesota civility and a sense of resignation that the project was going forward whether they liked it or not.
"There's nothing that's going to stop it," said Henry Quade, the retired director of the Water Resources Center at Minnesota State University and a decades-long advocate for conservation and protection of Minnesota's water. "It's political, economic, everything else. But we need to do it in a responsible way."
The growth in mining of silica sand has followed the rapid increase in the use of "fracking" to extract natural gas. The tiny, hard spherical grains of sand, when injected into rock deep underground, are integral in the hydraulic fracturing process used to release natural gas and oil.
While Silica sand, also used in glass and concrete production, has been mined for about 30 years by the UNIMIN plants in the Kasota and Ottawa areas, new mines have been cropping up in Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota despite virulent opposition in those areas. The Jordan Sands plan brings the controversy to Mankato, where some of the proposed mining will occur, and to neighboring Lime Township, where mining, washing and processing of the sand will occur.
"We have to be skeptical. We have to ask questions, always, on these issues," said Quade, adding that he's choosing not to formally oppose the project. "I'm retired now. Let the youngsters take over."
Quade's major concern is the large amounts of groundwater the processing facility will draw. The Department of Natural Resources will soon be issuing a water permit for the plant, and Quade hopes that it will be variable based on future climate and aquifer conditions.
"We are entering a drier period," he said. "It doesn't seem like it now, but our aquifers are going down."
Sr. Kathleen Mary Kieman of the Mankato-based School Sisters of Notre Dame is worried about water depletion, the potential of airborne silica sand particles to cause lung disease and the environmental impacts of fracking.
As co-director of the School Sisters' Center for Earth Spirituality and Rural Ministry, Kieman said it's her responsibility -- as she says it is of all residents -- to make sure that any negative repercussions on the environment and community are minimized if the mine goes forward.
"Because we together are the community and we together call on each other to be good citizens," she said.
Jordan Sands is an affiliate of the Coughlan Companies, and both Quade and Kieman take hope from the company's long history in Mankato.
"I know the Coughlans have been pretty responsible citizens in Mankato," Kieman said.
The open house was held in that spirit, said Scott Sustacek, CEO of Jordan Sands.
"This is just an opportunity, now that we're through the environmental review process, to just reach out to the community in a more personal way," Sustacek said.
Stations were set up around the large meeting room with company officials answering questions about groundwater impacts, sand extraction methods, sand processing and dust control.
"We've got all the experts here so people can ask questions about the issues that concern them," he said.
For Dennis and Linda Hoppe, who have lived a half-mile from the mine site for 25 years, it was practical concerns rather than environmental activism that brought them to the meeting.
"Basically, we just want to make sure that our well is covered," Linda Hoppe said.
Most neighbors get their water from wells 100 to 175 feet deep, Dennis Hoppe said. The new mining operation could draw the water table down much lower than that, he said. So the Hoppes were getting information about how, and how quickly, the company will respond if their well goes dry.
"Hopefully they want to be good neighbors, take care of everybody out there," Dennis Hoppe said. "We'll have to see."