EDITOR’S NOTE: The following opinion piece is published here due to its pertinent information for the citizens of Winneshiek County.

   The Northeast corner of Iowa is blessed with a unique geological terrain that also extends into Southwest Wisconsin and Southeast Minnesota. 

Known as the Driftless Area, it is replete with picturesque rolling hills and deeply carved river valleys with their towering bluffs, all because this region escaped the impact of glaciers 12,000 years ago. Thanks to its geology, it is also home to many endangered species and high quality cold-water streams alive with trout. Tourism is big here … for now.

Also unique to this area is high-quality silica sand that is round, crush resistant, and perfect for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of oil and natural gas, also known as unconventional fossil fuels. Sand-mining companies want it, and depending on your perspective, here come the jobs or there goes the neighborhood.

Since 2010, the number of frac-sand mines and facilities in Southwest Wisconsin has increased from five to 115 by 2013. Currently, Wisconsin is providing 50 percent of the sand used in the fracking process in the United States with shipments to North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, and elsewhere. According to Richard Shearer, president and CEO of Superior Silica Sands,  “Wisconsin is the global epicenter, and we’re just getting started.” It is also spreading to Minnesota and Iowa.

What is at risk and what are the potential costs to the local communities? If you live in “Iowa’s Bluff Country,” as Northeast Iowa is promoted, the bluffs and rolling hills will be flattened due to hilltop removal; tourists who come for trout fishing or to enjoy the region’s natural beauty will go elsewhere; property values will decline; water and air quality will be at risk; noise levels and the need for more road repairs will increase due to higher volumes of truck traffic; and one cannot help but wonder if current water resources will be able to meet the new demand.  

Finally, research suggests that few long-term local jobs will be added, and the newly created wealth will flow elsewhere.

If you are concerned about climate change, James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, in his March 13, 2014, testimony to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, warns that “Preserving … a planet that continues to look like the one civilization developed on, requires that we limit total fossil-fuel emissions to something close to 500 GtC … That means we must phase out coal emissions and leave most of the unconventional fossil fuels, including tar sands, in the ground.”


One senses a strong undercurrent of hubris in this last ditch effort to wring out the last drop of fossil fuels, using sand from a beautiful area as an enabling device. I quote from a handout from the Allamakee County Protectors, “To strip our land of its beauty, destroy a quality of life for thousands of people in Iowa who love these hills and all they offer, and to be part and parcel to the unmitigated greed driving the current fossil-fuel frenzy just to squeeze the last few drops of oil from nearly depleted reserves is unconscionable.”   

However, thanks to the efforts of this organization and especially two of its members, Robert Nehman and Ric Zarwell, the Allamakee Board of Supervisors in early June approved “… the most strict frac-sand mining ordinance in the nation.” The question is will other counties in Northeast Iowa do the same if they too find themselves under threat?


To see what is happening in Wisconsin and is easing its way toward Iowa, the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health and the Iowa City Landlocked Film Festival are proud to cosponsor The Price of Sand, a documentary about the frac-sand mining boom in Minnesota and Wisconsin. After the film, there will be a panel discussion with Thomas Peters, associate professor, David Osterberg, clinical professor, and Ryan Grant, graduate research assistant, from the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, who will present their research findings on the environmental impacts of and policy recommendations for the mining of frac sand.  

Please join us at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, in Room A at the Iowa City Public Library for this free event.