Although there are currently no permit applications to mine frac sand in Winneshiek County, a number of concerned citizens want to make sure county officials have a plan to deal with them.
At Monday's meeting of the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors, Decorah resident Rob Carbonell asked the Board to consider an 18-month moratorium on frac-sand mining in the county, similar to the moratorium, which recently went into effect in Allamakee County.
After thanking the Supervisors for their service to the community, Carbonell encouraged the Board to enact a moratorium, explaining, "It helps you buy time to do right by everyone in the county."
Carbonell also commented the Board is responsible for making sure the county's roads are maintained and suggested if they didn't want to make a decision about whether or not to allow frac-sand mining, the issue could be put to a popular vote.
"I'm not a knee-jerk environmentalist. I like my hot water and my gas stove. I would be a hypocrite if I said otherwise," he said.
"But there are other resources. A company called Carboceramics (no relation to Carbonell) is manufacturing a ceramic fracturing product that has proven superior to sand. It has a higher initial yield and better long-term performance. This sand is not those companies' only options, just the cheapest quickest one," said Carbonell.
"I'd be willing to pay a little more for my natural gas bill to know my trout streams aren't going to become over-silted, tourism won't go in the toilet and what used to be pretty is not."
Carbonell added he understands the need for sand mining, but asked that it be done "reasonably, sensibly and sustainably."
Craig Cutting of Decorah, representing the Winneshiek County Protectors, next addressed the Board.
He said the Winneshiek County Protectors is a group, which was organized about four months ago, with a mission to "seek and protect the natural resources and the public health and well-being of Winneshiek County."
"We're not a pro or con organization, or a political organization. We're trying to bring information to residents and the governing organizations of this county," said Cutting.
Cutting said with regard to mining and extraction, he thinks the county needs more rules.
"Are we going to allow open pit or shaft (mining), or run 24/7 with lights, diesel fuel and dust," asked Cutting.
"Are we going to have some kind of regulation on that?"
John Beard of Decorah said he thinks the most important reason for a moratorium would be to initiate a dialogue about the practice.
"I don't think anyone is seriously suggesting that we just ban sand mining. We need to learn from our neighbors in Wisconsin, where that industry has been pursued at a scale that is historical," said Beard, a former state legislator.
He said within Northeast Iowa, Southeast Minnesota and Southwest Wisconsin, trout fishing contributes $1.2 billion to local economies.
"All I ask is that if we're going to use this resource (sand), we do it in a way that doesn't threaten our natural resources," said Beard.
"We need to think about groundwater, trout streams, public health, transportation infrastructure and viewscapes ... The Board of Supervisors needs time to look at what they can do. The state Legislature needs time to set a ground-floor regulation so state permits are required. They do that for other industries, such as feedlots, solid-waste facilities. We need time. Otherwise we're going to end up with the scenarios we've seen in Wisconsin," he said, referring to blacktop roads being destroyed by truck traffic, reduced property values and water- and air-quality concerns.
When asked by Supervisor Dean Thompson if Legislators in Des Moines are paying attention to the frac-sand mining issue, Beard said he has been told it's a "regional" issue, but they said they would do an interim study.
Lack of information
John Rodecap, a farmer and former ISU Extension watershed coordinator from Calmar, said he is not opposed to frac-sand mining, but is concerned that it be done safely.
"We lack information about this type of mining. This sand is located along streams in Winneshiek and Allamakee County, often on long, winding roads with frequent bridges, with the potential for high maintenance costs," said Rodecap.
He added Winneshiek County needs to access more information relative to the possibility of contaminants leaching into groundwater.
"I support a moratorium on frac-sand mining. We need more information before we move forward," said Rodecap.
Decorah attorney Karl Knudson, who represents both the Allamakee County Protectors and the Winneshiek County Protectors, suggested a moratorium would "preserve the status quo while study can be completed."
Knudson added a moratorium would give the Supervisors time to look at a comprehensive zoning ordinance.
"You shouldn't wait for requests to be filed, if you can get a moratorium in place before you have to rule on a request," he said.
Always two sides
Kurt Oakes, general manager of Olson Explosives of Decorah, said he thinks a compromise can be made on this issue without illegitimizing the mining industry.
"It certainly is a political hot-button issue, but the operators that are in the industry are, for the most part, good operators. They believe in sustainability and what is sustainable so the environment isn't compromised," said Oakes.
"As long as companies that are in this industry utilize proper planning and engineering and design parameters, these are environmentally safe practices," said Oakes.
He explained the mining industry operates under the close supervision of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor.
"MSHA inspects operations twice a year. If they're underground, they inspect four times a year. To make things more interesting, they can come in any time they want. It's the same way with the Department of Natural Resources," said Oakes.
In addition, Oakes explained he doesn't think Winneshiek County will be targeted for frac-sand mining, due to the fact the county's rail system is at the south end of the county.
"The St. Peter sandstone is at a significant depth, which is not as attractive to these operators. They know they will have to invest more money," he said.
Oakes also said he thinks the natural gas market has hit its peak and is actually declining.
"Not to say it won't come back..." he added.
He added there are stipulations that are regularly placed on companies in order to preserve the environment.
"We all love the beauty of this region. In the conditional-use process, we can put scenic easements in place, so the mines are not seen from the road," he said.
With regard to a question about polyacrylimides, a "flocculant," or chemical used in the processing of the mined sand, Oakes said it is "a commonplace product that is used to purify drinking water.
"That's one of those things that misinformation and social networking have really blown out of proportion," he said.
Oakes added it is interesting to him the county is having the discussion on frac sand.
"It's important for people to realize where the things come from that make our life better. If it can't be grown, it has to be mined. A lot of us in society want to benefit from these things, but a large portion of society doesn't want it their backyard," he said.
"As professionals in this industry, it's our responsibility to do it right and there are processes in place to do it right," he said.