Northeast Iowa residents speak out against frac sand mining proposal

'You'd better be scared,' Illinois professor tells crowd at recent meeting

The driveway leading to the home of David Mitchell, who owns an 11.7 acre parcel about seven miles southwest of New Albi
The driveway leading to the home of David Mitchell, who owns an 11.7 acre parcel about seven miles southwest of New Albin where a frac sand mine is proposed to be located, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012. The mine would be located on the backside of the doodad hill pictured in the right side of the photograph. (Jim Slosiarek,/The Gazette)

Opposition is rapidly mounting to a proposal to mine frac sand in Allamakee County.

“Mining interests are coming at us like a runaway bulldozer going 100 mph,” said Ric Zarwell of Lansing, leader of the Allamakee County Protectors, a growing cadre of local residents opposed to a proposal by a Minnesota firm to mine sand southwest of Lansing, near the Mississippi River.

Zarwell said it’s an extension of the “sand rush” under way in neighboring Wisconsin and Minnesota, where scores of mines are extracting the specialized sand used in hydraulic fracturing — the process by which water, silica sand and chemicals are injected under high pressure into underground shale deposits to release otherwise inaccessible oil and natural gas.

Zarwell said local opponents object to the removal or defacement of scenic hills, as well as the noise, silica dust and heavy traffic associated with silica sand mining. They also worry that site erosion and sand processing will pollute local streams and groundwater, he said.

“It’s just sand,” said Rick Frick of Houston, Minn., the founder of Minnesota Sands, the firm pursuing at least three mining leases in northeast Allamakee County.

“It’s strictly the choice of the landowner,” Frick said. “They call me to test their sand. I don’t push anybody. It’s up to them if they want to sell their sand.”

Frick’s company has applied for a special-use permit to mine silica sand on an 11-acre site in the Sand Cove area near the Upper Iowa River about 5 miles southwest of New Albin. A Board of Adjustment hearing on the permit, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, has been postponed while the company works with County Engineer Brian Ridenour to ascertain road improvements needed to handle the proposed mine’s heavy truck traffic, said Allamakee County Zoning Administrator Tom Blake.

A spokesman for Minnesota Sands, Geoff Griffin, chief executive officer of GGG Inc., a mining engineering firm in Chatfield, Minn., said he had been “looking at numerous sites in Allamakee County, doing borings all over the area.”

In Wisconsin, the nation’s leading frac sand state, more than 80 mines and processing facilities are either operating or under construction, with an additional 20 in the proposal stage. As many as two dozen temporary moratoriums on new mines have been enacted by local government units.

In Minnesota, six silica sand mines are currently up and running, and moratoriums have been enacted by five counties and five cities.

Buying time

The Allamakee County opponents will likely ask the county supervisors to approve a moratorium to buy time to formulate rules to protect the environment as well as public health and welfare.

They expressed their concerns at an Oct. 14 meeting attended by 150 people in New Albin.

“You’d better be scared,” said Kelvin Rodolfo of Viroqua, Wis., professor emeritus of earth and environmental science at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Rodolfo, an avowed opponent of fracking and frac sand mining, said neither federal nor state rules provide any protection against fine, airborne crystalline silica, a known cause of silicosis, a serious respiratory disease.

Griffin, the engineer representing Minnesota Sands, attempted to allay residents’ concerns at an Oct. 16 meeting in New Albin.

Allamakee County’s Jordan sandstone is well suited for fracking, he said, because its grains are round, hard, crush-resistant and of an ideal size, and the deposits are close to the surface and easily accessible.

“Your formations are about 70 percent usable product,” he said, which means that minimal washing and processing will be required to make the finished product.

After excavation, he said, the sand will be trucked for processing either to a plant in Winona, Minn, or to the Pattison Sand Co., Iowa’s only legacy producer of frac sand, near Clayton.

Fugitive dust at the mine will not be a problem, said Griffin, who asserted that the sand is moist when extracted and loaded on trucks.

Noise at the mine will be less than 65 decibels, which Griffin said is comparable to the sound of human conversation.

Griffin said from five to 10 loaded trucks per hour will leave the mine site with a similar number returning empty.

Pine Tree Drive, the narrow gravel road leading to the mine site, will be widened and reinforced to handle the traffic at the company’s expense, he said.

The proposed mine’s closest neighbors were far from convinced.

“He (Griffin) didn’t answer our questions. He was here strictly for PR purposes,” said Sue Weymiller, who lives across the road from the proposed mine site.Apart from the anticipated spoiled view, Weymiller said she worries that the truck traffic will endanger her and her family.

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