After decades of riding horses through the bluffs and wetlands of rural Sand Creek Township, Peggy Jo Dunnette decided to buy property there, uprooting from Minneapolis to the Minnesota River Valley.
Now a five-year resident, Dunnette fears the area's landscape and water quality will be irreparably harmed if Scott County grants a local developer permission to mine gravel on an 85-acre parcel nearby.
"For one man's mine, we're going to do this to the water that belongs to and is used by all of us?" Dunnette said. "It's too close to the water table."
The Sand Creek Township project, proposed by Jordan Aggregates, has slogged through Scott County's permit process for nearly five years with steady opposition along the way. Before county staff recommended the project move forward, the Planning Commission rejected it, citing pollution concerns. And a vocal group of residents, including Dunnette, is worried the aquifer beneath the mine will be contaminated by polluted Sand Creek when the area floods.
The project cleared another hurdle in April, obtaining a permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), despite concerns raised in 87 letters from 43 commenters, including the city of Jordan, Sand Creek Township and Scott County.
"There's lots of different opinions every time that you look at an environmental issue," said Jeff Udd, MPCA supervisor of the industrial water quality permit unit. "But … we don't believe that groundwater is going to be impacted due to the floodwaters."
Udd pointed to an "extensive monitoring network" of public and private wells near the gravel pit that will be checked quarterly for contamination. The plan goes above what the MPCA normally requires, he said.
Gravel mines, in general, are fairly low risk from an environmental standpoint, he said, and no chemical additives are used during mining.
Jordan city officials are still worried about the project's effects and unsatisfied with the MPCA's responses to their many comments, but "our input stages are basically done," said Tom Nikunen, Jordan's city administrator.
Steve Hentges, owner of Jordan Aggregates, couldn't be reached for comment.
Not giving up?
There are other downsides to living near a mine, Dunnette said: constant dust, truck traffic and the sound of crushing rock.
But those concerns pale when compared with the potential effect on water quality, said Commissioner Joe Wagner of Jordan. He grew up near the mine site and worked summers at a local farm, where land often flooded.
Once a hole is dug in the ground, floodwater laced with agricultural runoff could quickly reach the aquifer, since the water table is so low and the area's bedrock is covered with just a thin layer of sand and gravel, Wagner said.
"The issues really haven't changed since the first proposal," Wagner said. "It all boils down to the same thing — it's the groundwater."
Wagner said a case could be made that the project will result in cheaper gravel, and thus road projects, for Scott County. He's also heard that in the seven-county metro area, "where there is gravel, and good gravel, you have to extract it" to meet demand, he said.
The issue "is very puzzling, and it's making me very uncomfortable," Wagner said.
The final step will be for the Scott County Board to vote on the permit. A vote isn't scheduled, but Scott County Administrator Gary Shelton said it could happen as soon as August. "This thing has got a lot of lives, I think," Wagner said. "Every time you think it's [gone] away, it comes back."
Dunnette said she believes the county is "scared to death of lawsuits" that could result if they veto a project proposed by a wealthy developer.
Yet she feels a new wave of energy among the project's opposition: "I have not given up," she said.