'Everything changed' with news of silica sand mine
RUSHFORD — Dr. Bryan and Susan Van Gorp had it all figured out: They found land in Ferndale Valley east of Rushford where they could relax, enjoy the quiet, hunt, fish, walk, see the bluffs.
What they didn't figure on was neighbor Tracie Erickson announcing about four years ago that he wanted to turn a long-unused gravel pit into a large mine to extract silica sand to be used in fracking for oil and natural gas, probably in North Dakota.
The Van Gorps soon found themselves among leaders in Houston County Protectors, a loose-knit group trying to get silica sand mining banned outright. But then the campaign expanded when they said the county board and county officials weren't responsive and were still using the "good old boy network" to pass permits that should have been denied.
Since then, Bryan, a veterinarian, said he's basically had a part-time job in the dual, but interlocked, fights. His main job is as a teacher and tech support for Nutreco corporation that makes animal feeds.
He and several others, including Ken Tschumper and Bruce Kuehmichel have spent countless hours going to meetings, organizing and speaking out. Their fight against fracking has been the biggest story in the county for the past few years.
"We weren't looking for a struggle to get involved in," he said. But he added, "I've been a lifelong environmentalist" and couldn't stand by to see the big mine opened, along with all the noise, trucks and disruption it would cause.
Furthermore, allowing mining would mean Houston County was an accomplice in the drilling for more oil and gas at a time when the country should be looking to wean itself off, he said.
So far, protectors has stopped the Erickson mine in part because the state said it needed a new permit because it was too close to a trout stream. The lower county and the Minnesota County of Appeals, however, have said an existing permit is valid. Still, no mine has opened. The protectors plan on pushing harder to get what they see as better government in the county.
Bryan Van Gorp, 63, said he grew up in Montevideo and received his veterinarian degree from the University of Minnesota. They later moved to the Ferndale Valley east of Rushford and barely inside the Houston County border. They raised some sheep and cattle while he flew across the country and into Canada for his work.
It was a beautiful June day four years ago that a neighbor, Cory Baker, knocked on their door, Susan said. He told them about Erickson's plans, one that would have a major mine and processing plant about a quarter mile away.
"It was like a slap in the face," she said. "Our whole way of living was going to change, our property values would decrease."
Because processing would use a large amount of water, they also feared water for the trout stream that runs through their land would dry up as would the spring for a small, private fish hatchery nearby.
"It happened overnight," she said. "Everything changed at that point."
"We didn't know a lot about land use planning," he said.
They didn't know there was "strictly a good-old boys network," she said. "They protect everyone."
But they and others learned quickly. They went to Wisconsin and found what they see as destruction of the land, noise, dust and "flicker jobs" that come and go as the energy market dictates.
So far, protectors has not been able to get a flat-out ban on mining silica sand, he said.
But they have stopped any mines from opening, got term limits for the planning commission (three members of the board recently voted to approve Glenn Kruse for a sixth term, a move Van Gorp is protesting) and they are pushing for sounder local government.
"Democracy mandates that citizens manage their government," he said.
Through all the changes, the Van Gorps have stayed active.
"I will say it makes me feel good to know that I am contributing to the betterment of society and in a small way making an impact on climate change," he said.