NEW ULM, Minn. -- One of the country’s largest silica mining companies filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this summer. Now, as the case winds its way through bankruptcy court, a local environmental group is worried that it will leave the future of a southern Minnesota prairie in limbo.
Save the Kasota Prairie, which has co-managed the 240 acres in LeSueur County with Covia Corp., is concerned about who will be responsible — financially and physically — for the 240 acres of restored prairie land that the Ohio-based company has agreed to help maintain.
Covia operates a mine in Kasota, Minn., that has been idle since November, with no restart date yet planned. It produces silica sand, which is used in the process for hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — which uses high-pressure liquid to extract gas from rock.
Covia filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection at the end of June, claiming $1 billion in debts and $250 million in assets. Company spokesperson Matthew Schlarb said the economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the “weak market conditions” that had forced the November mine idling. When operations halted last fall, more than 60 employees were laid off and, according to the company, the staff that remains is focused on maintenance and security.
But the impacts of the idled mine on southern Minnesota go beyond the loss of jobs.
For decades, Covia — and before that, its predecessor, Unimin — has been responsible for preserving and maintaining a nearby plot of restored prairie land, the result of a series of legal battles in the 1980s with a local environmental group, Save the Kasota Prairie.
Now, the group — which partners with the company in managing the land — is concerned that the corporation’s financial woes will signal an uncertain future for the prairie.
Jason Miller, president of the Save the Kasota Prairie group, said that right now it’s “a waiting game.”
“We just have to see what’s going to happen with their situation before we can even be proactive about what we can do with it,” Miller said.
While the company works its way through bankruptcy, Schlarb said, it’s committed to maintaining its agreement to protect those prairie lands.
“Covia plans to continue as the landowner and manager of the Covia Kasota Prairie and to continue our longstanding and positive relationship with Save the Kasota Prairie Inc.,” he said.
Save the Kasota Prairie was formed in 1979, when a group of local residents demanded that the company running the Kasota silica mine — at the time, it was Unimin Corp. — be required to do an environmental assessment after it announced plans to rezone a prairie just southwest of the city for strip mining.
Prairie ecosystems are among the most vulnerable in Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the state had 18 million acres of prairie at the time of the Public Land Survey conducted between 1847 and 1908. Now, the state says, a little over 1 percent of native prairie remains.
That’s why the Kasota Prairie group fought hard to protect the land. The yearslong battle led to an agreement between the group and the mining company: If Save the Kasota Prairie stopped its appeal, Unimin would agree to set aside some land to be restored back to its native state, and the corporation would be financially responsible for maintaining it.
Since then, the nonprofit and the company have had a longstanding relationship in protecting the prairie land. Board member Eric Steinmetz said that in the past, the organization would put on events to help fund some projects, from adding a parking lot entrance to the preserve to adding more land over the years.
Maintenance includes working to curb the invasive species that threaten the grasslands and planting seeds to promote the regrowth of native plants. The collaboration has also focused on restoring sections of the prairie where cattle used to graze and conducting controlled burns to keep the ecosystem healthy.
But with Covia’s recent bankruptcy, board members are concerned about the future of some of the projects they’ve been hoping for. Steinmetz said the group would like to eventually turn its attention to broad swaths of the land that have become mud flats, overgrown by weeds.
“(There’s) probably no tremendous damage within a year or two,” Steinmetz said. “So, we’re not panicking or anything, but we need to have an income stream and we need to have expert management in order to maintain the prairie in the excellent condition that we’ve done to it so far.”
Mark Halverson, the nonprofit’s treasurer, has been involved with the group since it established its partnership with the mining company. He said that, so far, he hasn’t heard whether Covia’s reorganization plans will have an impact on the restoration. The next round of filings is expected in September.
So the group is looking ahead. They are now weighing whether to take on additional partners in maintaining the restored land. In the past, the group had approached local colleges to take possession of their prairie acres, but so far haven’t found an interested partner.