Frac sand mining: Its fate in NE Iowa should rest in local hands

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 16 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:42 am in

Gazette Editorial Board

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Six counties tucked away in the northeast corner of Iowa often are referred to as Iowa’s Bluff Country or Iowa’s Little Switzerland.

Collectively, they include Iowa’s most extensive hardwood forests, native prairies, wetlands, cold water trout streams and remarkable vistas. This region is dotted with family farms, dairies, picturesque towns and small businesses, and more public land to explore than any other region in Iowa — the state with the least public land in the nation.

The counties of Allamakee, Winneshiek, Buchanan, Clayton, Fayette and Howard comprise this area. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in our state.

It’s no surprise that many residents and local government leaders in those northeast Iowa counties are protective and reluctant to allow their priceless landscape to be disturbed or altered in any major way. So when a Minnesota company sought leases to begin frac sand mining in Allamakee County in the fall of 2012, the local response was quick. A citizens group formed to oppose the mining proposals and county supervisors in early February of last year unanimously approved an 18-month moratorium on such activity. By last summer, Winneshiek County followed suit with a similar moratorium.

We think the moratoriums were a prudent move that also reflect what should be respected going forward: local control of decisions on this issue.

Northeast Iowa has large deposits of silica sand — the type coveted by oil and gas companies for the hydrofracking process that has exploded nationwide. Combined with water and chemicals, the process allows drillers to access previously inaccessible deposits of oil and greatly has boosted domestic production in states such as North Dakota and Texas over the past five years.

While frac sand mining is essentially on hold in northeast Iowa — one company, Pattison Sand Co. of Clayton, operates in Clayton County — it’s being done on a large scale just across the borders in west central Wisconsin and to a lesser degree in southeast Minnesota, where silica sand also is abundant.

Wisconsin has more than 70 mining operations and several dozen processing plants. Most of the mining is on the surface, although it can be underground, as is the majority of Pattison’s activity.

THE LOCAL CONCERNS

Since issuing their moratoriums, county officials in Allamakee and Winneshiek have devoted substantial time to researching the issue and gathering public input. While the citizens group, Allamakee County Protectors, would like to stop all frac sand mining, supervisors in Allamakee and Winneshiek told us an all-out ban is not likely. The concerns about frac sand mining include:

l Impact on air quality of the particulate matter from the mining and processing operations.

l Impact on groundwater quality because the process uses considerable amounts of water and mining may also be under the water table in terrain where there is much porous limestone. Water from mining that winds up in trout streams and rivers could be harmful if it alters the water temperature or content.

l Noise, dust and wear and tear on roads from large trucks and semis hauling the sand to processing plants; some operate 24/7.

l Potential loss of scenic hillsides and impact on wildlife and fish in an area prized for both. And once such a landscape is altered, can it be fully restored?

l Damage to the important tourism industry in northeast Iowa related to any or all of the above. In Allamakee and Winneshiek counties alone, tourism generated $68 million in 2012, according to a recent report by the Iowa Policy Project on frac sand mining.

DIFFERENT THING

One key question Winneshiek officials set out to determine was “whether this (frac sand) mining industry is similarly situated for the gravel and sand used for construction and ag that we depend on. What we see from Minnesota is that it’s not ... it’s a different thing,” in size and scope, said Dean Thompson, one of two county supervisors leading a subcommittee’s research that has included trips to see Wisconsin and Minnesota mining operations.

“These two counties (Allamakee and Winneshiek) are listening to everyone and looking as broadly and fairly as we can at the potential impacts that are of concern to our lifestyle and economy,” Thompson added. One goal is to learn from Minnesota and Wisconsin’s experiences.

Among the challenges for these counties’ decision-makers is that because frac sand mining is a relatively new industry, there’s not as much research available on its potential impact on the environment and peoples’ health.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

There’s a bit more on the economic impact. In Wisconsin, for example, Power Consulting Inc. prepared a May 2013 report on frac sand mining in Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Wisconsin Towns Association and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (which advocates for family farm issues.). Among its major findings: While mining operations in general have brought pay levels well above the average elsewhere in the local economy, the effect is short-term and there is little lasting benefit. The report projects similar effects from frac sand mining.

However, Kent Syverson, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire geologist who has served as a consultant both for frac sand companies and people opposed to frac sand mining, argued in a 2012 guest column in the LaCrosse Tribune that the benefits of the mining outweigh the negatives as long as geologically and environmentally sound practices are followed. The mines in Wisconsin have provided well-paying jobs for engineers, geologists, electricians, welders, truck drivers, safety officers and miners.

At Pattison, there are about 200 employees who have “some of the best jobs in the county,” said Beth Regan, environmental compliance manager for a company with deep local roots.

She told us that Pattison follows a reclamation plan for surface mining land, while underground mining does not disturb the surface. The company hopes to expand underground mining at its Clayton operation and also has begun surface mining operations near Bridgeport, Wis.

As for whether there should be more regulation of frac sand mining in Clayton County or elsewhere, Regan said, “We take the safety of our team personally. We hunt and fish here in the area, so we take environmental concerns seriously. We are already heavily regulated (by federal safety and health agencies and inspectors). We have full-time safety and environmental compliance staff. So, we do not believe additional regulations are warranted.”

Regarding air quality: The Wisconsin DNR on Feb. 5 issued new data from several sand mining facilities showing that none of the sites exceeded a federal health standard for particle pollution. Crispin Pierce, an environmental health scientist at UW-Eau Claire, applauded the data collection but said it also should measure smaller particles in order to fully measure impact on public health.

DECISIONS COMING

In Allamakee County, the Planning and Zoning Commission has led the research effort on this issue. Supervisors Chair Larry Schellhammer expects they’ll likely have a proposed ordinance ready by June and supervisors will hold public hearings this summer. A decision on a new ordinance is expected by the time the moratorium ends in September. “I don’t think we’ll extend it (moratorium),” he added.

“From what I’ve seen, it (an ordinance) would be very restrictive if it (frac sand mining) happens at all. ... I don’t see any wide-scale mining similar to what’s going on in Wisconsin.”

As for Winneshiek, Thompson would say only that he expects there will be some kind of regulation in place by the end of this year if the moratorium isn’t extended.

Thompson and Schellhammer say their boards want this to be a local decision, although they’re not opposed to advice from state experts — similar to what Minnesota has offered to officials in the southeast area of that state where frac mining has been more limited and some communities have moratoriums. Meanwhile, however, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are drafting rules toward statewide regulation of the industry.

CONSISTENCY, COLLABORATION

We think the decisions in Northeast Iowa can be best made by local officials who thoroughly research the issue and weigh input from their constituents. They understand the value of their unique region and can fairly weigh the pros and cons of whether to allow frac sand mining and under what conditions and restrictions.

We also think collaboration among all of those counties where frac sand mining is sought also could be useful. Iowa’s bluffs country is certainly special, a treasure for all Iowans to appreciate and protect for future generations. Some consistency in policies and local regulations would serve that entire region.

l Comments: editorial@thegazette.com or (319) 398-8262

MORE ONLINE

l Wisconsin DNR report on frac sand mining:

http://tinyurl.com/m5r679w

l Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report:

http://tinyurl.com/m2hvsau

l Minnesota Environmental Quality Board recommendations to local governments:

http://tinyurl.com/k9nq6s4

l Iowa Policy Project report:

http://tinyurl.com/kux9dw4

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