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Sand Is Like Gold In LaSalle County, Where Some Oppose More Mining

(CBS) -- The next time you take a weekend trip to one of Illinois' biggest state parks, you may notice something different along the way: more mining.

Sand mining operations are exploding in LaSalle County, and people who live there wonder what it will mean for their families and for the thousands of tourists who visit Starved Rock State Park every year.

CBS 2's Chris Martinez visits the community to check out their concerns.

"There's nowhere for Utica to go anymore," says Monty Whipple, president of the LaSalle County Farm Bureau. "Who's going to want to build a business here if you've got a sand mine here?"

Consider this a war room. Around a dining room table they prep their resistance.

The land around their farms and homes in Utica is -- in their words -- under fire.

"I think it will be a nightmare," Joy Coleman says.

Sand mining, a long tradition in LaSalle County, is now growing at an unprecedented rate.

"And we don't know where they're going to come up next," Coleman says.

By many accounts, it's become the new gold rush, as silica sand -- mined in this area for more than 150 years -- takes on new value.

The sand is used in fracking to extract oil or gas. As that industry grows, so does the need for sand.

Already there are five mines in LaSalle County, and another four want to move in.

Homeowner Cheryl Illman says she has watched the boom up close. When she moved here, she says everything was corn fields.

Like most of her neighbors, she questions the environmental impact of the mines, from sand dust in the air to how drilling near the aquifer might affect the water supply.

Her neighborhood now faces mines on all sides. She says she's surrounded.

Most of the mines are on farmland that, once mined, can likely never be farmed again.

One mine slated for 315 acres near beloved state park Starved Rock has alarmed neighbors and environmentalists alike who worry noise, dust or truck traffic will drive tourists away.

Steve Russo, a representative of the Operating Engineers Union Local 150, says the focus should instead shift  to what the mines bring in.

"There will be 39 permanent jobs here. Those are average $80,000-a-year jobs, with pension benefits, with health benefits," he says.

He adds: "They are not doing fracking here, they're doing mining."

But owner Mary Whipple is still convinced that "somebody has to stop this, catch our breath and then see where we're going with this."

There is a moratorium on new sand mines in LaSalle County. But residents say companies are getting around it by having their land annexed in to area towns, leaving them without any say.

Those residents are now exploring what legal options they have.


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