Government

Northeast Iowa sand company gets go-ahead for underground mining

Clayton County board rezones land to allow extraction of silica sand

An aerial view of the Pattison sand mine near Clayton. (file photo)
An aerial view of the Pattison sand mine near Clayton. (file photo)

ELKADER — The Clayton County Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 4-0 Tuesday night to approve a zoning change to allow the Pattison Sand Co. to expand its operations.

The panel’s approval was the final step in a yearlong process to rezone 746 acres from agricultural to heavy industry to facilitate underground mining of the silica sand used in the hydraulic fracturing process of extracting oil and natural gas.

A standing-room-only crowd packed the meeting room, and more than a dozen attendees spoke both for and against the proposal during the nearly three-hour meeting.

Several of Pattison’s more than 100 employees lauded the company for its good wages and benefits and said the company and its employees contribute substantially to the Clayton County economy.

Neighbors of the mine near the town of Clayton expressed concern that language governing the zoning change does not protect their health, the health of the environment or the scenic qualities of the wooded bluffs along the Mississippi River.

“It’s important to get this right,” said Decorah attorney Karl Knudson, representing some of the neighbors.

Knudson said neighbors were especially concerned about health risks associated with inhaling fine particles of silica sand.

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A study committee established by the supervisors to determine the environmental, economic and aesthetic impacts of Pattison’s proposed expansion found little air quality risk associated with frack sand mining.

That was the conclusion of University of Iowa professor Patrick O’Shaughnessy, who explained his research on the topic during one of the study committee meetings.

His testimony “was a turning point for the study committee,” its chairman, Mike Finnegan, said Tuesday night.

That study committee, after eight months’ consideration, recommended 16 zoning restrictions on topics ranging from air and water quality to noise, traffic and impacts on natural scenery. None, however, were adopted by the Planning and Zoning Commission, and only a few were adopted by the Board of Supervisors.

Several speakers Tuesday night urged the board either to delay consideration or adopt the overlooked restrictions.

Daryl Bruxvoort of Elkader said the board should wait until the county updates its comprehensive plan — a process that has just begun — and then ensure that the zoning is consistent with the updated plan.

Board member Sandra Coobs moved that the matter be tabled until after the first of the year to allow additional study, but her motion died for lack of a second.

The board then voted 4-0 in favor of Gale Severson’s motion to approve the conditional use request.

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