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Sand mines booming in Kansas but neighbors object

September 27, 2019 GMT

LINWOOD, Kan. (AP) — Northeast Kansas farmer Mark Tinberg views his work as a calling.

But the land is vanishing out from under him.

More than 600 acres of crop fields he tended have been lost to commercial development over the years. Factories, warehouses, housing developments and even mining operations have popped up in corn and soybean fields along the Kansas River.

He views a 220-acre sand mine proposed near his Linwood home as just the latest assault on American farmland. He and his neighbors also worry the project will threaten the quality of their well water, pollute the area with dust and noise and bring a barrage of trucks to their sleepy, pastoral neighborhood just north of DeSoto near the banks of the Kansas River.

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“That ground will be destroyed for eternity,” said Tinberg, who has lived in the area for more than 50 years.

Kaw Valley Companies, a family of construction and mining firms based in Kansas City, Kansas, is seeking a special use permit to build the mine and extract thousands of tons of sand daily, The Kansas City Star reported .

The controversy comes at a time of increased sand mining in Kansas. State officials credit a booming economy for increasing demand for sand in construction, transportation and fracking. Sand is one of the most abundant materials on Earth and it’s used to make everything from glass to concrete to computer chips.

Kaw Valley, though, has been cited dozens of times for federal safety violations at its other mines and has been dinged by state regulators for water quality problems. Aside from residents, the project has stoked concerns from the county planning commission, a nearby golf course, neighboring cities and school districts.

Yet county staff are still pushing the project forward. In recommending the new sand mine, Leavenworth County staff wrote that it would provide jobs and “a necessary good” because sand is used to produce concrete and asphalt as well as mitigate flooding.

But neighbors say the potential risks and side effects of the project far outweigh the meager economic benefit.

The mine likely will not produce significant sales tax revenue as the product will be sold from Kaw Valley’s location in Wyandotte County. Planning documents show the mine will employ three workers and one part-time manager. The company estimated the mine would generate $25,000 to $30,000 in increased property taxes.

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“We just can’t understand what our leadership is thinking,” Tinberg said. “That’s why everybody thinks there’s something else going on. It just smells fishy.”

To aid their fight, the Tingbergs have hired Andrea Bough, a Kansas City councilwoman and the attorney who represented landowners opposing a proposed Tyson chicken plant near Tonganoxie. That project fizzled amid strong local opposition.

In a July planning commission meeting, Tinberg told members that the mine’s impact could persist for far more than 20 or 30 years.

“Once Kaw Valley removes all the sand, they will pack up their equipment and leave,” he said. “All Leavenworth County will be left with is a big hole.”

In an expanse of green farm fields, only a small sign giving notice of a county zoning hearing marks the site of the proposed mine. But dozens of yellow signs protesting the project bear witness to the major resistance brewing in the surrounding area.

It’s not far from the site of a proposed foster care community — another project that’s been met with strong objections.

Carolyn Knutsen, who owns the property where the mine would be built, said her family grew corn, soybeans and wheat there from the 1950s until her husband died in 2007. Since then, she’s rented out the fields, moved to Minnesota and remarried.

She said she and her daughters carefully debated the decision to convert the farm to a mine, but ultimately decided it would be good for the family.

Knutsen anticipated some local opposition. But not this much.

She acknowledged that the mine will lead to increased truck traffic, but she believes the county and the company will adequately address those issues. Much of the opposition has been “fake news,” she said, as environmental and water quality concerns are unfounded.

“They’re not open to listening to any of the information,” she said. “We passed all state and federal regulations and tests. They don’t want to listen to the truth about some of these things they’re bringing up.”

Knutsen, who is retired, would not disclose the terms of her lease agreement with the company. But she said the mine will eventually be converted to a recreational lake. She envisions that becoming an asset in the area, potentially accessible to the public.

In the meantime, Kaw Valley envisions digging a huge pit on the farm, which sits in a floodplain.

The company would fill the pit with water and use a dredge line to vacuum material out of the pond. Other machinery would separate sediment and sort fine sand from coarse sand. Two rotating conveyor belts would deposit sand onto two stockpiles. Kaw Valley will not process sand on the site, but truck it all to its Edwardsville plant.

Kaw Valley officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But county documents show the company plans to extract 2,000 to 4,000 tons of sand per day over an estimated 20 years. The company has pointed to a nearby Johnson County mine as “near-identical” to the mine it plans for Leavenworth County.

Just outside of Bonner Springs, Holiday Sand & Gravel Co. operates that mine near the Kansas River.

The vast mine resembles a lake, but it’s wrapped by a chain link fence and a sign warning passersby of drowning risks. In the water, dredging barges remove the sand for further processing.

Neil Holman, the parks and recreation director for Shawnee, said the city-owned site is a significant revenue generator. The city charges a royalty on all the sand and gravel mined. The fluctuating rate is currently set at 15 cents per ton. Last year, the city received $183,000. In 2017, the royalties reached $206,000.

The 2011-era mine is expected to operate for 30 years. Eventually, plans call for converting it into a recreational lake. A similar nearby mine operated by the same company is nearly ready for recreational use, Holman said.

“It’s beautiful blue-green water,” he said. “The kids swim in it. The fish are awesome.”

Because a surface mine is essentially an open hole in the earth, it can cause water and other material runoff to drain into the water table below. That’s been a major point of contention among the neighbors who rely on wells for their drinking water.

“There is no way this is not going to destroy my water,” said one man who lives near the site and relies on a 30-foot well. “You can’t flood a field like that and not contaminate my well water.”

The cities of DeSoto and Olathe also have expressed concern about the mine because of their drinking water wells in the area.

A lawyer for Kaw Valley said the company has agreed to quarterly water quality testing of the area’s groundwater.

The company has had one recent problem with mine pit water overflowing into the Kansas River at another site but it was corrected, a spokeswoman with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said.

The state regulator has now signed off on the Leavenworth County sand mine following the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting of the project.

Don Whittemeyer, a senior scientific fellow at the Kansas Geological Survey, recently studied the impact of sand mining on wells in the Wichita area. His research found that runoff from the mines led to higher than acceptable levels of arsenic in the water. Arsenic is naturally in the area but the disturbance of the mine and chemical reactions caused it to enter the water supply. The Wichita mines studied were not used for drinking water, he said.

Whittemeyer said there are ways to prevent such issues. Responsible miners use berms and other methods to control water flow. It’s also important to avoid leaks of lubricants or fuels from entering mines, as those materials can find their way into the drinking water supply.

“As long as they’re operating in this manner where they try to keep things from entering the sand pit water, it looks like things end up being OK,” he said.

In their public presentation and in planning documents, Kaw Valley leaders have noted that the mine has been reviewed by multiple state and federal agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the other federal regulators saying it appreciated Kaw Valley’s choice to mine on the farm, rather than dredging in the Kansas River. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism wrote that it foresaw “no significant impacts to crucial wildlife habitats.”

But the company does have a history of safety violations in Kansas.

Data kept by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration show multiple fines and violations issued to Kaw Valley.

The company has received 33 violations in the last five years at its Turner Dry Sand Plant in Wyandotte County. Twenty of those fines are delinquent, the agency’s database shows.

Another Kaw Valley mine in Wyandotte County has racked up 66 violations over the last five years; 25 of those fines are listed as delinquent.

The database shows the company has violated a variety of safety standards, including those that require hard hats, the securing of unattended equipment, maintaining a clean and orderly workplace and controlling flammable or combustible liquid spills. The company’s mines also have documented problems with electrical conductors, firefighting equipment, record keeping, unprotected moving machine parts and exceeding permissible noise levels for workers.

In the July planning commission hearing, a lawyer representing the company said he didn’t know how many violations Kaw Valley had. But he said safety violations happen to every company.

Kaw Valley remains in good standing with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said Scott Carlson, the agriculture department official who oversees mine reclamation efforts.

Data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration show Kansas has 86 active mines and 113 intermittent mines. Another 19 are classified as temporarily idled. Most of the state’s sand mines are in western Kansas, state officials said. Those on the eastern side of the state are generally found near the Kansas River.

In July, the Leavenworth County planning commission voted 4-3 to recommend denial of Kaw Valley’s request for a special use permit.

Planning commission member Mark Denney said the proposed site would be the best place for a sand mine in Leavenworth County. But in voting against the proposal, he said he couldn’t get past the condition of the roads in the area.

“I just don’t think it’s in the county’s best economic interests where the benefits outweigh the potential costs,” he said.

Krystal Voth, the county’s deputy director of planning and zoning, said at the July hearing that staff were requesting multiple conditions on the company’s special use permit. The recommended 25-year permit requires annual staff evaluations, limited dredging and truck hours and construction of a tree-covered berm on the south side of the site.

Additionally, she said the company would have some financial responsibility for improving the county’s narrow, chip-and-seal roads. Some roads on the proposed truck route have no center lines, include sharp, winding turns without shoulders and have signs banning truck traffic. The company plans to run as many as 10 trucks per hour to move sand from the mine, records show.

Officials with the Basehor-Linwood school district and the Bonner Springs/Edwardsville district have raised concerns about the safety of county roads if the sand mine were approved.

The planning commission only makes recommendations. Now, the issue will go before the county commission.

While the opposition has been fierce, Mike Stieben, the county commissioner whose district includes the sand mine, said the commission must lean on established Kansas law that guides zoning decisions.

“I care a whole lot about what people in the area think,” he said. “But we’re bound by the law. And that’s it.”

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