Environmental activists and rural landowners are hoping to block a request by a mining company to expand two small county roads in northwestern Fannin County.
They are calling on commissioner Gary Whitlock, whose precinct includes the future sand mine, to deny the request. They want the company — Resolve Aggregates — to offer guarantees to the county about how it plans to use the site.
Whitlock says he is conflicted about the decision but will likely approve the road.
“We’ve never been faced with something like this before,” Whitlock says. “We have a lot of opposition on this, and I see both sides because I’ve been there."
The people behind Resolve Aggregates began buying up land using a different company called Savoy Bend Ranch in 2016. It has so far acquired 42 properties that will eventually link up to form the area that Newell is planning on mining.
Resolve Aggregates is asking Fannin County to let it expand county roads 1010 and 1020. The gravel roads there now aren’t big enough for the trucks that would haul the sand. The company has offered to pay for the improvements and donate property on either side.
Activists from the local environmental group CORE say the road approval is the county’s best shot at forcing Resolve Aggregates to mine responsibly.
“There’s a process for widening a road. That process is anything but automatic … You don’t have to automatically say yes to that,” says Alan Richard from CORE.
“I unfortunately have heard a lot around here, that we can’t do anything about it. Which is this idea that it’s a done deal. We have no power. There’s nothing we can do. Resistance is futile.’ — I reject that. He has power as a citizen, as we all do.”
Richard added: “Why can’t they negotiate with Metroplex Sand & Gravel and say, ‘Yeah, we’ll widen these roads for you. But you have to do something for the county.’ And that something, all that has to be, is what Metroplex already says it intends to do — which is mine responsibly, and do reclamation, along with dialog with citizens.”
Metroplex Sand & Gravel is another company in the same business. Metroplex, Resolve and Savoy Bend are all owned by the same person, developer Kenneth Newell, a businessmen operating mainly in the Fort Worth area.
Newell’s companies have clashed occasionally with neighbors in Fort Worth.
“My experience with Newell’s mining operation has been very frustrating and unpleasant,” Kelleher says. “Just in general he demonstrates a disregard for rules.”
Kelleher said trucks carrying sand traveled “nonstop, in and out. The neighbors had dust all over their cars and their homes ... “What used to be so beautiful is now just a pit."
Kelleher, who has been clashing with Newell for years, pointed to recent alleged violations by Newell-owned companies in recent years.
These included a pending action from the Environmental Protection Agency, a violation for failure to prevent industrial waste from entering waters of the state, and a pending enforcement from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
In Bonham, meanwhile, environmentalists and landowners have teamed up to stop the mine. They are strategizing about how to protect their land and resources from being irreparably harmed by the mining operating.
They are also circulating a petition — in person and online — calling on the county to reject the request. They say the company should build roads on its own property.
One neighbor started a blog tracking the mining company’s moves into the county as well as a podcast with interviews from landowners who would be affected.
Kenneth Newell did not respond to interview requests from KETR.
But last year Keith Newell told a local TV station that "We've got a history of really working well with the community, with our neighbors, being responsible and actually improving the land that we mine”.
And Whitlock, the commissioner, says he offered serious assurances to the county.
“The want things to be neat, clean, and they’re not out there to try to make anybody mad. They’re going to try to be a good neighbor is what they say.”
The commissioner says he can’t force the company to make official commitments, at least not the kinds that the CORE activists are demanding.
“I’m not trying to get this sand plant approved. I’m not trying to. It’s the idea that I’ve got to do my job. And they petitioned me to widen this road, and I’ve got to bring it to the commissioners court. … I’ve got to try to do for them just like I’d have to do for anyone.”
But Whitlock agrees that residents should be concerned about the water basin.
Historically, sand mining operations in Fannin County have lowered the water line. That results in emptying shallow wells that are often the only source of water for rural homes.
Decades ago, Whitlock’s own family tried and failed save their wells from the sand miners.
“My dad fought with them for years. He thought they were going to get the water, and they did, eventually. And my dad did get a lawyer and tried to get where they could keep them from getting into the water. But they told us at that time that there’s nothing you can do about it. And it seems like right now we have no control over what they do.”
Now, as the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex expands northward toward Fannin County, Whitlock and many of the constituents he represents see history repeating itself on a much larger scale.
“There’s growth that’s coming and we can’t stop it. We cannot stop it.”