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Missouri law didn’t require environmental review before issuing silica mining permit

080722_provided_mine silica.jpg
Niara Savage
/
Missouri Independent
Ste Genevieve Counnty residents have been fighting efforts by NexGen Mining Inc. to mine silica in their county.

Poisonous sand blowing in the wind.

Wells running dry.

A dark night sky ruined by constant lights.

These are the things residents in Ste Genevieve County are worried about as they work to prevent a silica sand mine from moving into their community.

NexGen Mining Inc. plans to mine silica sand, commonly used for fracking, in southeast Missouri once it obtains all of its permits. It was already granted one from the state and needs two more.

The site is just two miles from Hawn State Park and across from some residents’ homes. Jillian Ditch Anslow, a high school biology teacher, is worried about the health consequences from the mine.

“This type of mine doesn’t affect just the land that’s being mined…it affects everybody in the whole county and surrounding areas,” she said. “It affects our water, our air, my child’s development.”

Inhaling silica dust can result in silicosis, a type of permanent lung damage that can be fatal. Workers in the mines are most at risk. But there’s disagreement between scientific organizations about the risk of simply living close to a mine.

And though neighbors are concerned, Missouri regulations didn’t require any study of the potential environmental and public health impacts of the mine before granting its land reclamation permit earlier this summer.

“For the mining permit, they just have to…provide company information and show they have the legal right to mine the property,” said Larry Lehman, director of the land reclamation program at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

But Clark Bollinger, the company’s general manager, promised mitigation measures to prevent dust from blowing away from the mine, according to St. Louis Public Radio.

“It certainly won’t be a negative impact (on health). I can assure you that,” Bollinger said. “There’s processes and procedures in place to minimize — certainly the dust, the light pollution and noise pollution.”

NexGen did not return a request for comment by The Independent until after the story published Friday, when Bollinger said in a phone call that he’s willing to speak with residents about the company’s plans.

“I’ve offered the olive branch to the neighbors. I’ll meet with them once a month, talk you know about where we’re at in the process and our intentions and where we’re at in the in the project timeline,” he said, “and no one has reached out to me as of yet.”

No environmental study

080722_provided_hawn state park.jpg
Niara Savage
/
Missouri Independent
NexGen Mining Inc. plans to establish a silica sand mine near Hawn State Park. Residents and park-goers are worried about the impact to Hawn, but environmental regulators don’t expect water quality in the park to be harmed.

Neighbors, environmentalists and state park enthusiasts have tried to fight the NexGen mine since the company applied for its land reclamation permit in March.

They flooded the Missouri Department of Natural Resources during the public comment period on the permit, raising concerns about how the mine might affect residents who get their drinking water from wells, native wildlife and visitors to Hawn State Park and other remote conservation areas that are — for now — secluded and peaceful.

“We don’t know what kind of…residue coming out of the mine is going to have an impact on streams,” said Kim Gordon, president of Friends of Hawn. “We’ve got some really clear-running streams in that area. Pickle Creek to this day is recognized as one of the cleanest running streams in that region.”

One person who wrote to the department said: “If there is even a chance of it contaminating our water, using up our water table or affecting anyone’s health (including the wildlife) why allow it? Why chance it? There’s too much at stake here.”

The department noted some of the conservation areas that residents are concerned about — Hawn State Park, Pickle Springs and Horton Farms Conservation Area — lie in a different watershed and should not be affected by runoff. Hickory Canyon is in the same watershed, but a ridgeline between the NexGen site and the canyon should prevent runoff from reaching it.

NexGen is also required to prevent erosion from leaving its property and affecting downstream neighbors.

But in terms of denying the permit because of the public outcry, the department has little flexibility.

Lehman said the statute around land reclamation permits gives state environmental regulators little say in whether to decline permit applications. He said an environmental impact report isn’t required.

“The Land Reclamation Act, which regulates mining in the state, tries to strike a balance between allowing mining to occur in the state of Missouri and then ensuring that that property is reclaimed, it has some value following when mining is done,” Lehman said.

Lehman has also resisted calls for a second public meeting near the site after thunderstorms and a tornado warning kept would-be attendees from getting from St. Louis to Ste Genevieve County. He noted the department extended the public comment period by two weeks.

“There were requests for another follow up meeting but we believe that the meeting met the requirements,” Lehman said, “and also, we have to understand that once we had that informal public meeting, the clock was ticking for the department to make a decision.

Legal fight

Without much room for state regulators to keep the mine away, the community turned to its county commission.

Commissioners voted to adopt a set of regulations barring mining operations within half of a mile from schools, towns, churches, parks or wells and a quarter of a mile from homes, caves and protected streams. NexGen’s mine would be too close under the ordinance.

As a result, the county faces a lawsuit from the company, saying that state law preempted the ordinance and that the ordinance effectively created a zoning scheme without approval from the voters. The lawsuit also alleges the county violated the Missouri Sunshine Law by failing to issue proper public notice of its discussions about the ordinance.

“Remarkably, the agenda for the…meeting at which the ordinance was passed, makes reference only to ‘ordinance’ with no mention of mining operations whatsoever!” the lawsuit says.

NexGen’s attorney directed requests for comment to a representative from the company who did not return a voicemail.

The county was served with the lawsuit last month and has yet to file an answer.

Meanwhile, Jeffery has filed an appeal of the Department of Natural Resources’ decision to issue NexGen’s permit with the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission, saying regulators failed to properly examine NexGen’s legal right to the property.

Jeffery’s appeal says NexGen has already started clearing trees and land, creating a disturbance.

The limited liability company that owns the lease for the land didn’t exist when the company filed its application with environmental regulators. An entity by the same name filed with the Missouri Secretary of State in July, but according to an affidavit the registered agent signed, he doesn’t have a lease agreement for silica sand mining.

Another similarly-named LLC was registered a few days after Jeffery filed the appeal.

“DNR failed to adequately examine, investigate, and review the contents of the permit application and issued (it) anyway,” the appeal says. “Had DNR done an adequate examination…DNR would have determined that NexGen’s ‘mine lease agreement’ was between a nonexistent entity and was void.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.

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