By Renee McGivern
When Minnesotans think of our wonderful natural resources, it’s not likely that stone, sand, and gravel come to mind. But our lack of appreciation for aggregates makes them no less beneficial than our lakes or prairies. They are the foundation for every road, bridge, and building we encounter, and our resulting quality of life.
What are cities doing to effectively manage this precious resource? How are they balancing the needs of aggregate producers and the community? Let’s look at a couple of cities for insight about the successful oversight and reclamation of what most of us simply call “gravel pits.”
Elk River’s gravel district
If you’ve ever driven along Highway 169 near Elk River, then you’ve passed through one of the largest gravel mining areas in Minnesota. The City of Elk River manages this 2,600-acre gravel “district” and works with eight aggregate producers that mine there.
“Gravel mining has been going on here for decades, and we see it as an asset,” says Kristin Mroz, the city’s environmental technician. “There’s a friendliness in the community toward it because people have grown up with it.”
Each of the aggregate producers has a unique conditional use permit (CUP) that addresses specific community concerns, like the hours they can mine and haul gravel, blasting restrictions, and what section is being mined.
“We expect them to communicate about any new level of activity, environmental contamination, and any changes they want for their CUP,” says Mroz. “We also like to know what they’re working on, so we get a connection between our material and a nearby project.”
In fact, the most effective way to balance mining needs and citizen concerns is through the CUP annual review process, according to one of the aggregate producers.
“Residents can be there to ask questions, and we can sometimes adjust the conditions of the permit to meet changing needs,” says Ron Klinker, environmental and land development manager for Knife River Corporation—North Central. “We care very much about being good neighbors and managing the mine so that it can serve Elk River long after we’re gone.”
Gravel mine turned park
A different gravel mine scenario is playing out in Blue Earth County, and it illustrates how long-standing relationships between local governments and an aggregate producer can open the door to a tremendous community asset.
Early in 2015, representatives from Southern Minnesota Construction (SMC), a division of Oldcastle Materials, Inc., approached the county and the City of Mankato about buying two properties the company owned that included gravel mines it operated there. The land has sweeping views, ponds, a mining-made lake, and lots of wildlife. It can be developed into the area’s largest natural resource park.
“The two dormant gravel pits and surrounding land offer a lot of possibilities for a recreation area,” says Terry Overn, SMC aggregate permit agent. “I’ve already seen our employees kayaking in the summer and ice fishing in the winter on the lake.”
This natural resource park was first discussed in the 1990s, but neither the county nor the city was positioned to buy or develop the land. Overn never forgot those conversations as SMC’s mining operations ended and it began reclaiming the land. Some 20 years later, he brought up the idea again, but this time, Blue Earth County and Mankato were ready.
Although this new 300-acre regional park is about three miles southwest of Mankato’s city limits, the city wants to be a part of creating the park for generations of local residents. It wants to keep a close eye on the ponds and lake within the park, too. “Our interest is not only the fact that it’s right outside the city, but the surface waters are directly linked to our aquifer,” says Mankato Community Development Director Paul Vogel. “It’s important to ensure the municipal water supply is protected.”
The city and county recently approved plans to purchase, develop, and manage the properties. SMC offered to sell the land at a discounted $225,000. The Department of Natural Resources assisted with writing an Outdoor Recreation Grant proposal to offset some of the cost. It’s likely that the county and city will spend just under $100,000 each.
“It was our hope for years that our land would become this wonderful natural resource park for the people of Blue Earth County,” says Overn. “We couldn’t be more pleased with how this is all turning out.”
Renee McGivern is communications strategist with Aggregate & Ready Mix Association of Minnesota (www.armofmn.com). Aggregate & Ready Mix Association of Minnesota is a member of the LMC Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).
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