Just because there is no one actively mining for frac sand in Winneshiek County, doesn't mean it couldn't happen here.

That's the precautionary approach being taken by a local steering committee, which recently formed to research and watch for the likelihood of the activity coming to Winneshiek County.

The group will host a public meeting Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the Decorah High School auditorium.

About fracking

"Fracking," short for hydraulic fracturing, refers to a 75-year-old technique used to release petroleum, natural gas (including shale gas, tight gas and coal seam gas), or other substances for extraction. This type of fracturing creates fractures from a wellbore drilled into reservoir rock formations.

Frac sand is quartz sand of a certain size and shape that is suspended in fluid and injected into oil and gas wells under high pressure. The fluid pressure opens and enlarges fractures as well as creates new ones. Sand grains are carried into these fractures and prop them open after the fracking slurry is pumped out.

Local history

Earlier this week, the Allamakee County Board of supervisors unanimously passed an 18-month frac sand mining moratorium.

The action came following an application in October by a Minnesota company to mine Jordan and St. Peter sandstone at Sand Cove near New Albin. The application was later withdrawn.

Since the application, a group of concerned residents formed the Allamakee County Protectors (ACP), a 501 c(3), which has raised more than $8,000 for legal fees to prevent frac sand mining in the county.

Decorah Attorney Karl Knudson was hired to represent the organization.

"I think we are fortunate to have Karl Knudson as our attorney. We totally agree with his philosophy on land matters and appreciate his abilities and his previous work. I believe that we definitely have the right legal counsel on our side," said Ric Zarwell, ACP president.

In November, Knudson presented the Allamakee County Planning and Zoning Commission with a proposal to hold a public hearing on a moratorium, which they subsequently set for Monday, Dec. 17.

Knudson suggested Allamakee County take time to review its comprehensive plan, which made brief mention of St. Peter sandstone, but not of the Jordan layer, which is an aquifer that supplies one-third to one-half of the state with its water.

In December, Allamakee County Planning and Zoning heard from a courtroom full of concerned citizens, who cited a plethora of concerns, ranging from quality of life to destruction of the county's roads. Allamakee County Engineer Brian Ridenour said one mine would use up to 125 semis per day.

At a public hearing last week, citizens again weighed in, citing environmental impact resulting in a loss of tourism dollars and health concerns due to water contamination and silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by inhaling silica dust.

County concerns

Bob Watson, a member of the Winneshiek County steering group, said one mine on Canoe Valley Rd. in Winneshiek County is already actively mining for St. Peter sandstone.

"It has been allowed under the auspices that it's being used for large dairy confinements as bedding," said Watson, adding he hopes the community can learn from their neighbors in Allamakee County.

According to Winneshiek County Zoning Administrator Tony Phillips, there is nothing in the permit for the mine, located north of Decorah, that limits it to agricultural use.

Watson has invited Zarwell to speak at the meeting, and he plans to show excerpts from the movie "Frac Sand Land," a film about frac sand mining in Wisconsin, which recently was shown at the Oneota Film Festival. A copy of the movie, produced by ACP Vice President Robert Nehman, can be checked out at the Oneota Food Coop. (Viewers are asked to return the movie quickly to maximize the number of people who have access to the film.)

"The reason we want to make sure we try and do what Allamakee County is doing, is so we don't end up with frac sand mining instead of just this one that's here for agricultural bedding," said Watson.

"Imagine hundreds of trucks a day turning by Casey's on College Drive," he said.

Watson said he wants the public to be aware of possible health concerns and impact on county infrastructure and tourism.

"We make so much money off of tourism. We just want people to realize that tourism could be trashed," said Watson.

Meeting format

Watson, who serves on the steering committee with Lyle Otte, Dick Jansen, Boyd Wasson, Craig Cutting and Steve McCargar, said the meeting will last one hour and be moderated by Otte.

It will be split into 10-minute segments, which will include information about the geology of Northeast Iowa, the impact of mining activities on public roads and bridges, possible public health issues arising from sand-mining activities, an update of the situation in Allamakee County, a 10-minute clip of the film and a question-and-answer session.

Following the meeting, Frac Sand Land will be shown in its full, 42-minute version.

Conservative approach

Zarwell said he is pleased Winneshiek County is taking notice of what's happening in Allamakee County.

"We are taking the long-term approach on this because we appreciate and deeply love the status quo ...The big profits from this are going to out-of-state corporations. There is a small number of our neighbors who stand to gain from this, while everyone is going to pay the price - not only residents, but people who travel here to see our beautiful resources," said Zarwell.

For more information about the meeting, contact Otte at 563-382-3137. To learn more about the ACP, visit allamakeecountyprotectors.com.