Saturday, March 2, 2013

Winneshiek County residents push against rapid sand mining growth

The Winneshiek County Protectors want to implement an 18-month moratorium on mining silica sand, a material used in fracking.

By Jon Overton

Concerned citizens formed the Winneshiek County Protectors to address consequences of expanding industrial silica sand mining in northeast Iowa on Feb. 15. Increased demand for silica sand is a result of the growing natural gas industry. Silica sand is an essential component in extracting gas from the earth via hydraulic fracturing also called “fracking.”

Lyle Otte, a founding member of the Winneshiek County Protectors, said organizers want the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors to place an 18-month moratorium on sand mining. Winneshiek County Protectors officials also want the county supervisors to implement a zoning ordinance to limit and regulate silica sand mining. Otte said he does not oppose silica sand mining, but feels there is a need for greater regulation of the industry to protect the public.

Concern over expanding silica sand mining comes from potential damage to infrastructure, the environment, tourism and locals residents’ health.

“Once you start digging silica sand out of rocks, dust gets in air,” Otte said. From there, dust from the sand enters the body and, “builds up like coal dust in the lungs.”

The environment, Otte said, also suffers because massive amounts of water are used to wash silica sand before it’s shipped to natural gas extraction sites. The sand is filtered through a process that leaves behind material that isn’t fine enough for fracking, which becomes runoff, contaminating surface water.

Otte said that northeast Iowa didn’t get the glacial till that the rest of the state did.

“Hills eroded down much longer here, which brings silica sand to surface,” he said. “The surface moved down, putting it into river valleys and stream valleys ... mining can’t be easily camouflaged.”

The tourism industry in the county, Otte said, would suffer because this would seriously damage both the area’s ecology and natural beauty.

Otte also said that reliance on trucks to transport silica sand damages roads because of high traffic combined with heavy loads.

“Truck traffic is huge because they need such a huge supply of sand to supply fracking in North Dakota,” he said.

Fracking shoots a mixture of water, silica sand and chemicals several thousand feet below the earth’s surface, using enormous pressure to crack bedrock. Silica sand holds open the fissures the process created so that natural gas can pass up into extraction wells.

Since legislative progress on silica sand mining from the Iowa General Assembly has been nonexistent, Otte said, municipal governments must act. Members of the Allamakee County Protectors convinced the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors to place an 18-month moratorium on silica sand mining, as the Winneshiek County Protectors are currently trying to do.

Members of the Winneshiek County Protectors will elect the Board of Directors and Officers on Wednesday, March 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Decorah Middle School cafeteria.

“Our first public meeting was last Wednesday [Feb. 20] at Decorah High School,” Otte said. “We were expecting about 50 to 75 people to show up and instead, we got around 200.”

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