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Ste. Genevieve business sues to overturn law barring proposed silica mine near Hawn State Park

Chris Eckenfels painted "Protect our farms, county, water" on bales of hay and stacked them in front of his property after he found out about NexGen Silica's mine.
Jillian Ditch Anslow
A local resident painted "Protect our farms, county, water" on bales of hay and stacked them in front of his property after he found out about a proposed silica mine in Ste. Genevieve County earlier this year. The mine's owners have sued county commissioners to overturn a law that would keep the mine from being built.

The owners of a proposed silica mine in Ste. Genevieve County have filed suit against local officials, seeking to overturn a new law that would prevent the operation from opening.

The suit, filed in county court after the Missouri Department of Natural Resources approved a permit for the mine, asks a judge to strike down the ordinance so that the mine can be built. It names the county commissioners and health department as defendants.

The proposed mine's officials say the business is pursuing the state permits it needs in the event the county ordinance is struck down.

“Right now we're just focused on the DNR and looking forward,” Nexgen Silica General Manager Clark Bollinger said. “We’re not sure that ordinance will keep us from mining. That’s why we’re going to continue with the permits.”

County commissioners and the county’s health department in May passed an ordinance that prohibits new mines from opening within a half-mile of schools, towns, churches and public or private wells and within one-fourth of a mile from caves and DNR-designated streams.

Mining operations have to follow all local regulations, DNR officials have said. Unless the new law is struck down, it would make it impossible for the proposed mine to operate, even if state permits allow.

The mine is set to be built off Highway 32 just a few miles from Hawn State Park, Pickle Springs Natural Area and other outdoor destinations.

County officials passed the ordinance after an outcry from local residents and environmentalistswho are worried about the potential health and ecological effects of mining silica.

Silica is a substance that typically occurs in quartz sand and is used to manufacture industrial products and to extract oil during fracking.

The lawsuit also claims the ordinance relies on “one-sided, incomplete information” about the health risks of silica mining.

Concerned residents founded the group Operation Sand to fight the mine. They claim that the silica mining could kick up dust that could potentially cause cancer and other illnesses and that the chemicals used in the operation could contaminate groundwater.

Local activists say the state's decision to give the mine a permit, and the lawsuit, are unfortunate.

“We all had a glimmer of hope in the back of our mind that the Department of Natural Resources would make the right call here and deny the permit,” said Jillian Ditch Anslow, a member of Operation Sand. “But the reality of it is there's just not very many requirements to obtain a mining permit in the state of Missouri.”

Ditch Anslow, who lives near the proposed site, still thinks the county’s ordinance will hold off construction of the mine.

“We're confident in the validity of our ordinance, in the soundness of it. And we are confident that it will be upheld in court,” she said.

In the lawsuit, Nexgen Silica claims that county officials do not have the authority to issue such restrictions on the mine, that they passed the ordinance without properly publishing notice of meetings and that the health ordinance is discriminatory, arbitrary and unconstitutional.

The Missouri DNR and other state agencies are charged with regulating mining, not health departments, Nexgen’s lawyer argues.

“These setbacks do not enhance public health because their only effect is to prohibit Nexgen’s construction and conduction of its sand mining operation under its lease, its permit and Missouri law, an activity that would not impact public health,” the plaintiffs write in their court documents.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.