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Why Ste. Genevieve County residents are battling to stop a silica mine

Ste. Genevieve County residents formed a group called Operation Sand to organize and oppose NexGen Silica's mine based on health concerns.
Jillian Ditch Anslow
Ste. Genevieve County residents formed a group called Operation Sand to organize and oppose NexGen Silica's mine based on health concerns.

Residents of Ste. Genevieve County are bracing themselves for a long fight.

Next week, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is expected to issue an industrial mineral permit for a 249-acre silica mine near homes and conservation areas, including Hawn State Park. The permit is the first of three NexGen Silica needs to begin mining. But so far, the project has faced intense opposition from local residents.

“The only people in this town that are for this mine are the ones that are getting their pockets lined,” observed Chris Eckenfels, a lifelong county resident. Eckenfels’ family lives 3,000 feet from the proposed mine.

“We have to stay here,” he said. “This is our permanent home. We can’t just pack up and leave.”

A new company fronted by Missouri businessmen, NexGen Silica made financial agreements with six landowners to create the mine.

Ste. Genevieve County residents on why they don't want a silica mine as a new neighbor

Residents and farmers fear the mine would tarnish the area by contaminating well water and expelling crystalline silica dust in the air, which can cause diseases such as silicosis. Many residents rely upon wells for drinking water. Eckenfels’ well sits a half-mile from the proposed mine’s perimeter.

“There's two chemical agents, flocculants, that they use to wash this stuff,” Eckenfels explained. “And when that gets in our water — it's not a matter of if, it's when it gets in our water — it's going to contaminate our water table, and our water table is very shallow.”

NexGen notified residents of its plans by letter in March. Since then, residents have researched the issue and formed a coalition called Operation Sand to stop the mine.

The mine would sit off Highway 32 — just two miles from Hawn State Park, Hickory Canyons and Pickle Springs' watershed. That’s a problem for Kim William Gordon, an avid backpacker and the president and founder of Friends of Hawn, which helps maintain trails in the park.

“This is the largest shortleaf pine reestablishment in the entire state, so that alone is special,” Gordon said. “And then Pickle Creek itself is one of the most pristine creeks in the entire state. It really positions Hawn and that entire eco-structure as incredibly unique.”

Both the Ste. Genevieve County Commission and the county health department voted unanimously to enact a health ordinance in May that would limit silica mines to locations at least a half-mile from any water source or resident. That would make NexGen Silica’s proposal a non-starter.

The Department of Natural Resources’ policy is to issue permits, regardless of local ordinances in place. But Director of Land Reclamation Larry Lehman confirms that the mine would still have to abide by local ordinances.

“[The permit] does not give them the ability to just go out and mine,” Lehman said. “They have to make sure that they comply with any other type of local, state or federal requirements.”

But beyond the new county ordinance, state and federal requirements for silica mines are sparse. No official environmental study is required. Steve Jeffery, an environmental lawyer in Chesterfield hired by Operation Sand, said that’s why the health ordinance was needed.

“If you look at a mining permit that DNR issues in instances like this, it has absolutely no requirements until after the mine operation closes, in some cases 50 to 100 years from now, if you can believe that,” Jeffery said.

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
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.

NexGen Silica promises mitigation measures to prevent the dust from leaving the mine, said Clark Bollinger, the company’s general manager.

“It certainly won't be a negative impact [on health], I can assure you that,” he said. “There's processes and procedures in place to minimize certainly the dust, the light pollution and noise pollution. There are processes in place to not maybe eliminate everything, but certainly we can manage any of those concerns.”

Bollinger said he has proposed to meet with residents once a month to update them on the mine’s progress, but no residents have taken him up on the offer.

“We have our phones on us, we're certainly willing to talk,” he said. “Unfortunately, no one's really reached out to us. I know everyone always hears, ‘Well, we're going to be a good neighbor.’ Well, we truly do want that.”

NexGen Silica hired a geologist and hydrologist to come to a public meeting in May. Around 250 residents showed up. One was Chris Eckenfels, who left dissatisfied because the company could not guarantee his wells would not be contaminated.

“They say they're going to do all this stuff and be good neighbors, but they won't,” Eckenfels said. “They've kept it a secret for five years from us and then they sprung this on at the last minute. So I don't believe a word they say.”

Conservationists say the proposed mine could damage drinking water — not only in Ste. Genevieve County, but also in neighboring St. Francois County.

Jillian Ditch Anslow, a high school biology teacher and lifelong resident of Ste. Genevieve, is Eckenfels' neighbor and helped found Operation Sand with him.

She hopes to lay groundwork that other places in Missouri can benefit from as well.

“This one 249-acre spot is not the only place where this sandstone is that they're getting the silica sand from,” she said. “It’s basically a river that goes through not just this county, but counties around us as well. And it is desirable. People are going to want to come in and mine. So we have to set a precedent somewhere and say, ‘Hey, if you're going to do this, we have to put some setbacks, some strict restrictions on this type of mining, because it can impact people's health.’”

Regardless of what your political leanings are, everybody wants a nice place to live. Everybody wants clean air and clean water.
Randy Ruzicka

Ste. Genevieve County Commissioner Randy Ruzicka voted to approve the health order. He said protecting groundwater is critical.

“If an operation makes too much noise, or let's say they're putting a certain kind of odor into the air, you can stop that and you can correct it and the problem is solved,” he said. “But if you destroy the water, it's done. You don't go back from it. That's the seriousness of this.”

Hawn State Park is a major draw to the county and helps the local economy. Around 120,000 people visited the park in 2020. Compared to the park, the mine wouldn’t be an economic boon to the region, Ruzicka said.

“People around here aren't out of work,” he said. “So to say we're going to bring 30 jobs in doesn't move the needle. As it stands right now, over 50% of the employees that come to the larger employers come from out of Ste. Genevieve.”

NexGen Silica has applied for the water permit, and once the period of public comment opens up, residents Jillian Ditch Anslow and Chris Eckenfels plan to request another public meeting with company officials. Ruzicka, a Republican, said he’s seen opposition to the mine unite people across party lines.

“Regardless of what your political leanings are, everybody wants a nice place to live,” Ruzicka said. “Everybody wants clean air and clean water.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.