Iowa Policy Project study urges local control on frac sand mining

Clayton County home to only operating frac sand mine in state

Orlan Love
Published: January 30 2014 | 2:30 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:54 am in
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A new report by the Iowa Policy Project details potential harmful effects of frac sand mining and recommends local control of the industry.

“I think frac sand mining will become a big issue in Iowa,” said David Osterberg, co-author of the study, “Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining,” released Thursday during a telephone conference with Iowa reporters.

The prospect of mining silica sand for use in extracting oil and natural gas has already resulted in imposition of moratoria in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties, where residents fear the practice could harm the environment, degrade natural beauty and impair their quality of life.

The moratoria on new frac sand mine operations provide local officials with time to study the issue and decide on a set of ordinances to properly regulate these operations.

Osterberg, a state legislator when Iowa established rules on the siting of confined animal feedlots, warned against allowing the state to pre-empt local rules governing frac sand mining.

“We don’t want the state to take control like it did with hog lots,” he said.

Although Iowa has just one operating frac sand mine in Clayton County, the researchers noted that parts of northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota have deposits of the high quality silica sand that has been heavily mined in western Wisconsin.

The round, crush-resistant quartz particles are well suited for fracking, which entails the use of sand to hold open rock fractures to permit the release of oil and gas, they said.

The researchers said frac sand mining could cause a reduction in both the quantity and quality of water in northeast Iowa.

In a terrain characterized by porous subsoil limestone, industry uses of water or mining beneath the water table could affect the flow of groundwater, wells and streams, elevating the temperature of cold water trout streams that make the region a big draw for anglers.

Degrading of water resources, coupled with the actual removal of some of the region’s scenic bluffs, could harm the region’s tourism industry, which generated $68 million in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in 2012, the authors said.

“Trout fishing enthusiasts should be worried — but so should anyone who drinks water in the northeastern corner of Iowa,” Osterberg said.

Public policy issues revolve around land-use regulations and environmental regulations, the researchers said. Potential local ordinances, they said, could include provisions for hydrologic mapping to determine groundwater flow patterns, local well monitoring to determine a baseline level for well quality and quantity and setbacks for both sinkholes and trout streams.

“State leaders should recognize the responsibility, expertise and concerns of local officials in determining what is best for their area,” said Aaron Kline, the report’s co-author.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, in a press released issued later Thursday, said the report “ is a call to action for our lawmakers to strengthen local democracy and keep corporate pollution out of our waters.”

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