After more than five hours of debate, Douglas County commissioners decided Wednesday not to vote on a proposed conditional use permit for a sand pit mining operation on a site near Eudora.
Instead, commissioners agreed to hire an independent consultant to weigh a mountain of conflicting reports from engineers and hydrogeologists about whether the project would threaten water quality of an underground aquifer that provides drinking water to nearby residents and the city of Eudora.
Commissioners plan to revisit the issue Jan. 2 after reviewing the independent analysis.
“I argued cases before judges for 27 years, and I never had a judge sit through complex arguments like this and rule from the bench,” Commissioner Jim Flory said, arguing for a delay. “This is important to a lot of people.”
The permit application by William Penny & Van LLC called for opening a 434-acre site along the south side of the Kansas River as it passes by Eudora. It would produce sand for Penny’s Concrete, which already operates a dredging operation in the river near the site.
Consultants for Penny said the permit for a pit mine away from the river was needed because, for environmental reasons, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is unwilling to issue new dredging permits within the river banks.
The proposal has been the source of heated debate for months between the company, the city of Eudora and area residents. Last month, a sharply divided Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission recommended approval of the permit, subject to numerous conditions, on a 4-3 vote, with one member abstaining.
Area residents and the city of Eudora expressed concerns about the potential threat such an operation would pose to groundwater supplies. Both the city and rural residents around the site draw their drinking water from wells that reach into the underground aquifer, many feet below the river bed.
Among other things, they were concerned the mining operation would allow above-ground contaminants such as fertilizers, pesticides and urban runoff from surface water to contaminate the underground aquifer.
“The risks are there, and they are real to the Eudora water supply,” said Eudora city attorney David Waters.
Waters and other city officials noted that their water treatment plant is built to treat well water, which typically has less bacteria and fewer contaminants such as fertilizers, pesticides and urban runoff. If surface water is allowed to mix into the aquifer, they said, Eudora could be required to build an entirely new treatment plant.
“No one can guarantee that pollution cannot come down to Eudora from this sand pit,” said Eudora Mayor Scott Hopson. “If our water plant is shut off, we’re up a creek.”
Conditions of the proposed permit would require Penny to maintain berms around the pit to prevent surface water runoff. But residents of the area said that wouldn’t protect the pit from a major flood along the river.
Both the dredging operation and the proposed pit mine are in the area where the Kaw makes a U-shaped bend to the north, and then back south. Information from the Kansas Geological Survey show the channel of the river has changed several times since the mid-1800s because of floods and natural erosion of the banks.
Carl McElwee, an engineer who also lives near the site, said if the permit were approved, another flood would create a “nick point” on the ground that would draw flood water into the pit and thus contaminate the aquifer.
But Philip Struble of Landplan Engineering said the dredging operation in the river has been penetrating the aquifer for more than 50 years without causing contamination problems. He said the proposed pit mine would be far enough away from municipal and residential wells that there would be no chance of contaminating their water sources.
Even before the meeting, commissioners were given more than 400 pages of documents related to the application, including competing engineering studies from the applicant and the city of Eudora.