Three counties take different approaches to frac sand mining

Counties stick to home to win fights over procedure

Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Jack Knight (left) and Ric Zarwell, leaders of the Allamakee County Protectors, talk about their efforts to restrict frac sand mining in their county.
Lyle Muller/IowaWatch Jack Knight (left) and Ric Zarwell, leaders of the Allamakee County Protectors, talk about their efforts to restrict frac sand mining in their county.

ALLAMAKEE COUNTY — A group of northeast Iowans effectively has kept large frac sand mine companies from mining silica-rich sand in their county by building a consortium that set aside politics and focused on dealing with the matter locally, instead of with state intervention.

Allamakee County enacted this year a countywide ordinance restricting mining the silica sand used in other states to extract natural gas and oil in a process called hydraulic fracturing.

Silica sand, a natural resource found in northeast Iowa, the southeast corner of Minnesota and much of Wisconsin, is found in only three Iowa counties — Allamakee, Winneshiek and Clayton.

“I’m not opposed to sand mining, but I do feel that it could occur under restrictions or controls that protect the residents and the resident’s interests,” Allamakee County Planning and Zoning Commissioner Thomas Blake said.

Allamakee County’s neighbors to the west, in Winneshiek County, have passed a moratorium on large-scale sand mining and are considering a countywide ordinance to restrict it.

Clayton County, however, allows frac sand mining without the kinds of restrictions found in its neighbors to the north.

State government has been involved in Wisconsin, where the Legislature sought this year to pass a Senate bill and similar one in the House that would have prohibited local governments from regulating existing sand mine operations. Both bills failed.

Silica sand’s fine texture makes it a prime ingredient that can be pumped into fissures in fracking wells to allow the fissures to stay open and extract natural gases and oil. The process of fracking creates controversy because of excessive chemical use and contamination to water supply and air.

While fracking is controversial on its own, so is mining the sand used for the process because of its effect on wildlife habitats in the hills, forests and bluffs for which Allamakee County and several other northeast Iowa counties are known.

Allamakee County’s ordinance states a mining operation can exist, but it cannot use chemicals to wash or process silica sand, or apply any chemical or toxic substance in excavating silica sand. Moreover, sand mines cannot be located within 1,000 feet of any spring, cave, sinkhole or any other feature of the karst topography prevalent in the county, among other restrictions.

The ordinance so thoroughly defines the county’s dominant features that it virtually keeps large operations out.


The effort to enact Allamakee’s countywide ordinance began in 2012 when Minnesota Proppants LLC of St. Charles, Minn., applied to obtain land and mine for silica sand. Residents brought their concerns to local officials who, in February 2013, adopted an 18-month moratorium on frac sand mining.

The moratorium expired July 1 when the ordinance took effect. Minnesota Proppant LLC withdrew its application, but county officials continued to hold public forums on sand mining regulations.

Residents’ concerns centered on destruction to environment and wildlife habitats and health problems to those working in sand mines and residents who live near mines. Other issues included the effect on tourism, potential chemical contamination of the Jordan aquifer, increased truck traffic and fugitive silica dust that, if inhaled, can cause silicosis.

Another concern of the Allamakee County Protectors was that, under Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, Iowa might act in the same manner as Wisconsin, which, under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, has been a sympathetic state for sand mining.

Branstad said this summer that sand mining should be regulated, but that it produces economic benefits. He said construction of a new fertilizer plant in Lee County and the expansion of another in Woodbury County would not have happened without fracking.

Natural gases retrieved with fracking that uses silica sands are a necessary ingredient in synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is used by farmers to fertilize their crops to produce higher yields.

Iowa Fertilizer Co. is building a $1.8 billion fertilizer plant in Lee County. Steve Bisenius, the county’s economic development executive, said the plant is expected to bring 240 to 250 jobs to the area.


Creators of Allamakee County’s ordinance looked at a sand mining operation in Clayton County to gauge environmental impacts. Pattison Sand Co., set along the Mississippi River in Clayton, is managed by Kyle Pattison.

Pattison mines and distributes the silica sand, geologically named St. Peter sandstone, to fracking sites in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado and North Dakota, said Beth Regan, the company’s environmental compliance manager.

Employing more than 230 people, Pattison Sand uses the room-and-pillar method to operate a mine that stretches 35 acres underground along the Mississippi River. This method, similar to that used in coal mines, relies on pillars of sandstone left intact for underground support.

To reduce mining traffic going through Clayton, home to about 40 people, Pattison built a private road leading between Pattison Sand offices and Clayton County road X56.

The Clayton mine has been so successful that Pattison is expanding onto land leased from a private property owner across the road from an existing mine entrance.

Pattison mixes the silica sand with water to prevent dust particles from becoming airborne before exporting its product on a railroad that runs through Clayton, Regan said.

The company also requires all employees to attend regular safety meetings, participate in yearly physicals and those who work on the crushing line must wear masks, Steve Stroschein, Pattison Sand’s health and safety director, said.

“We want people to be here for 40 years,” Stroschein said.

The Pattison operation is routinely inspected. On Nov. 22, 2011, an accumulation of sand was identified near the shoreline of the Mississippi River. This accumulation came from sediment-laden water exiting the mine from a leaking filter.

The incident was self-reported by Kyle Pattison, and the company was fined $10,000 and ordered to replace the filter.

Clayton County officials did not see a need for a countywide moratorium, County Supervisor Larry Gibbs said. Gibbs said wildlife has not been affected by the underground mining since Pattison Sand reopened the mine and that Pattison has replanted more trees than have been cut down.


Residents in Winneshiek County, to the northwest, are not as eager as those in Clayton County to embrace frac sand mining. The county ordered an 18-month moratorium in June 2013 and is using it to conduct air and water quality test, funded with a $5,000 grant from the University of Iowa.

Air and water quality tests are to begin this coming fall.

Winneshiek County officials also are researching the effects of frac sand mining and visiting other mine sites, Dean Thompson, a county supervisor, said. Winneshiek County’s moratorium allows for lengthening or shortening the moratorium’s duration.

A group called the Community Rights Alliance, formed in May 2013, is pushing for an all-out ban on frac sand mining in Winneshiek County.

Issues surrounding frac sand mining are here to stay for a while, Winneshiek County Supervisor Dennis Karlsbroten said.

“You can see it’s probably not going to go away until they find another energy source,” he said.

l This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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