The Winneshiek County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission has recommended an 18-month moratorium on permits for frac-sand mining in the county.

The recommendation, which will be forwarded to the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors, passed on an 8-1 vote, with Commissioner Doug Egeland voting against it.

During a public hearing Tuesday night, which drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people, the nine members of the Commission heard from more than 30 attendees regarding both pros and cons of enacting a moratorium.

The Commission entered the meeting considering a 24-month moratorium, which several of the Commissioners felt was too long a period.

"I think people work harder and faster when they have a shorter deadline," said Commissioner Doug Egeland.

He and others recommended a one-year moratorium before Commissioner Wendy Stevens suggested a compromise of 18-months.

The discussion

As with previous meetings on the topic, comments in favor of a moratorium focused around environmental, health, infrastructure and tourism/landscape concerns.

Those against a moratorium held up job creation and existing regulatory agencies as reasons a moratorium was unnecessary.

At the start of the hearing, Winneshiek County Protectors President Lyle Otte of Decorah presented the Commission with a petition containing 1,350 signatures in favor of a moratorium. The petition had already been presented to the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors Monday.

"We talked to hundreds of people and found strong support for a moratorium," said Otte.

M.J. Hatfield of rural Decorah referred to the threatened and endangered species act of 1975, adding Winneshiek County has 69 species on the threatened and endangered list.

Tom Hansen of rural Decorah said, "The sand has been here for millions of years. We have time. The county needs to take time to find a balance between people who want to sell their assets for profit and those who wish to protect their assets."

The Commission also heard from David Osterberg of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, who has already offered to conduct a health impact survey of the effects of frac-sand mining during a moratorium.

"Crystalline silica is a dangerous substance. It's not like the normal dust you find on the roads," said Osterberg.

Former Decorah City Council member Julie Fischer, a retired public health nurse, said the silica sand particles can be airborne for three-four days and travel 10 kilometers.

"Think about our children. Nobody really knows what a safe dose of silica is," said Fischer.

A good example

Both Craig Mosher and Ed Brooks, who live on Canoe Valley Rd. north of Decorah, said the Commission set a good example for permitting with the Quandahl agricultural sand mine, located near their properties.

"That permit was negotiated over a period of weeks to address road-dust issues, environmental and safety concerns. And it's working fairly well. I commend everyone involved in that process. As neighbors, they have worked in good faith, but we can't assume the same good faith from out-of-county or out-of-state corporations that would come into the county (to mind sand)," said Mosher.

Regulatory concerns

Bob Watson of Decorah cited the example of the recent explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas as a problem with "patchwork" regulations.

"There is no one, overall agency monitoring mining," said Watson, suggesting the P&Z request an environmental health assessment from the Winneshiek County Board of Health.

Janet Alexander of Decorah said, "We really need concerned citizens to be our eyes and ears," adding her research into mining in Wisconsin indicated fines for regulatory violations are just a "cost of doing business" for mine operators rather than a deterrent.

Carl Haakenstad of Decorah noted while six states have standards for ambient air quality, Iowa is not one of them.

"(Miners) do not have to follow any good practices and do not have to monitor the air around the mines," said Haakenstad, adding a warning about the danger of acrylimide, a byproduct of polyacrylimide, a chemical used in processing the sand, which he said is a known neurotoxin and carcinogen.

"With acrylimide the weight of one penny is enough to pollute a million gallons of water," he said.

Well regulated

Reacting to regulatory concern issues were representatives from the mining industry, including Olson Explosives of Decorah, Pattison Sand Company of Clayton and the Iowa Limestone Producers Association of Des Moines.

Kyle Pattison of Pattison Sand Company, which mines frac sand in Clayton County, said although his company uses millions of gallons of water, 80 percent of it is recycled, and that which is not recycled is held in a holding pond where it is filtered and tested before it is sent back into the water table.

"We have significant local, state and federal regulations," said Pattison.

"The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) manages us and our work environment. They also manage concerns with silicosis ... we work well with the DNR and MSHA."

Commissioner Doug Egeland asked Pattison if his company has dealt with many cases of silicosis, and Pattison said it had not.

"We monitor our work environment very closely. There certainly is a risk of silicosis," said Pattison.

Kurt Oakes of Olson Explosives explained while Iowa itself has no regulations for ambient air quality, there is a national standard the mining industry is required to follow.

Economic considerations

While several speakers expressed concerns about the potential of county tourism dollars being lost if the landscape is affected by large-scale mining, Beth Regan, permits and compliance coordinator with Pattison Sand Company, explained the economic benefits.

"We employ 180 people from the surrounding area in Wisconsin and Iowa. We lease with a trucking company who employs plus or minus 25 drivers. We have onsite contractors that employ 20 people. In 2011, we spent $19 million with local vendors," said Regan.

Regan added in 2012, people associated with the Pattison Mine spent an estimated $25,000 on lodging and over $22,000 on meals in Northeast Iowa.

Answers needed

Several speakers urged the P & Z to take more time to study the issue.

"I still have more questions than answers," said Mike Vermace of Decorah, who has an undergraduate degree in geology and a masters in civil and environmental engineering.

Kate Rattenborg said after mines are allowed into the county, "You can't go back."

Jim McIntosh of Decorah said he felt the conversation was skirting the real issue: "Can anyone here rationally oppose giving us the opportunity to take the time and do this right? That's the question we're here to answer."

David Williams, an attorney from Fillmore County, Minn. said, "Five of your neighboring counties in Minnesota have enacted moratoria. They saw what was going on in Wisconsin and it scared them to death. These are conservative county leaders who protect agricultural land."

Williams said he wrote the ordinance on frac-sand mining for Fillmore County.

"This is not about trying to prohibit silica-sand mining ... it is to distinguish between aggregate mining and silica-sand mining," he said.

What's next?

The Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors is expected to hold a public hearing on the Commision's recommendation in the future.