A large pile of frack sand sits near the Pattison Sand Co. processing center, which includes a large dryer. The material is sent mostly by train to oil and gas companies working in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado and Canada. / Perry Beeman/The Register
by Perry Beeman, Des Moines Register, March 24, 2013
DECORAH, IA. — Residents of this picturesque montage of rolling hills, trout fishing and canoeing are fighting to keep America’s headlong rush into oil-and-gas “fracking” from spoiling the scenery responsible for a healthy chunk of Iowa’s $3.1 billion outdoor recreation industry.
They are fighting with slogan-emblazoned buttons pinned to their lapels and with meetings and facts. They are crusading online and in the grocery lines. They’re urging political leaders to at least temporarily block companies from opening new holes in the geologically fragile landscape of extreme northeast Iowa.
There is no fracking for oil or gas in Iowa, but drilling companies covet the huge and easily accessible supplies of the hard, round grains of silica sand found in the northeast corner of the state, including Allamakee, Winneshiek and Clayton counties. The stuff is shipped from eastern Iowa to rig sites from North Dakota to Texas.
“This is coming at us like a runaway bulldozer doing 100 miles per hour,” said Ric Zarwell of Lansing, leader of Allamakee County Protectors, a group that successfully lobbied for a moratorium on frack sand mines in Allamakee, after Minnesota mining companies came calling. “I see this as neighbors opposing invaders.”
Zarwell and others here are calling it the “sand rush.”
Not everyone believes the mining operations would be bad for the area.
Some point to the hundreds of mine-related jobs that could potentially be created, and how those would also benefit other local businesses. Others say whatever eyesores the mines might create are only temporary, and point to state and federal regulations requiring that such sites be restored.
Mark Ellis, president of the National Industrial Sand Association, said mine operators are dedicated to protecting public health. The Washington, D.C.-based trade group has produced a manual to help companies comply with various environmental regulations, he said.
Iowa is home to one of the nation’s largest deposits of the fine-grained, round silica sand prized by drilling companies engaged in fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a controversial — and, some say, environmentally unsound — method of harvesting oil and natural gas from buried shale.
Fracking has exploded across much of the United States as companies maneuver to tap previously unreachable natural gas and oil reserves to ease the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
The process involves pumping a mixture of water, silica sand and some chemicals into the rocky layers that hold the oil and natural gas. That breaks apart the rock and holds the fissures open while fuel-producing minerals are pumped from the hidden layers of shale.
The sand is found throughout the state, but the deposits closest to the surface are located in the rolling terrain surrounding Decorah, Lansing and Clayton, making that region easier and more profitable to mine. That’s grabbed the attention of several companies already mining extensively in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where a steady parade of trucks have stirred up dust, along with noise complaints from folks living near some excavation sites.
The special sand — with its hard, round grains — is a favorite of drilling rig operators because it does an especially good job of holding open the cracked rock, like pingpong balls in a big jar.
There’s plenty of demand for the stuff. U.S. production of frack sand has jumped from 8.8 million metric tons in 2009 to 13.7 million in 2010 and 24.3 million in 2011, the most recent figures available.
“The main thing that they are interested in is that it is round and almost entirely quartz and a uniform size,” said Raymond Anderson, a geologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Sand miners won’t say what they pay for leases, and they also require landowners to keep that information secret. But with Iowa’s generous supplies, most believe landowners could make thousands of dollars even in a short period.
The three geological layers that hold the sand — the St. Peter sandstone, Jordan and Wonewoc — provide thousands of spots where mines could easily be established in northeast Iowa, said Zarwell.
Mining companies tout jobs and pledge to meet environmental regulations, but Zarwell isn’t satisfied.
If the mines came in, the promised jobs likely would go to outsiders, home values could drop, dust would threaten residents’ health, groundwater could be contaminated, and trucks would bog down traffic and damage roads and highways, he said.
And the outdoor recreation and tourism that have defined the area could suffer most.
“It would be gone,” Zarwell said.
That’s a concern in Winneshiek, Allamakee and Clayton counties, which draw a combined $53 million a year in recreational spending related to rivers alone, according to figures compiled by Catherine Kling, an Iowa State University economist focusing on natural resource and environment issues.
Others worry about what adverse health effects might be associated with frack sand, although lung ailments caused by breathing tiny sand particles typically pose the biggest threat to mine workers and others with prolonged exposure.
Larry Schellhammer, chairman of the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors, said the county approved the moratorium in February so it could consider restrictions on the industry to protect the scenery that drives tourism and to limit the noise and dust such operations produce.
“Allamakee is pretty well known as one of the prettiest areas of the country,” Schellhammer said. “We like to talk about it being God’s country. We have to respect that. We have pretty heavy tourism.”
But the county, which is already home to a dozen or more conventional sand and gravel operations, can’t ban frack sand mining forever, he said. So he and other county officials are asking the Legislature to help the county address problems when they do arise.
They are lobbying lawmakers to allow counties to charge mining operations a fee that would help fix damaged roads and address other problems related to the business. Some mines send 200 trucks out, and back, daily, Schellhammer says.
In the Decorah area, another top tourist stop and home to Luther College, the potential arrival of sand mines quickly set off citizen protests. Winneshiek County officials are mulling a moratorium, too.
Karl Knudson, a Decorah lawyer who helped push through the Allamakee moratorium, said the timeout gives critics a chance to at least push for dust and noise limits. “There could be a big impact on tourism, with the likelihood that the area won’t be properly reclaimed.”
“These hillsides are important for tourism and have Indian burial sites,” Knudson said.
Lyle Otte has lived in Decorah for 31 years. “We hope to keep enjoying it,” he told an audience of 160 at a meeting at the local high school in February.
“This certainly will affect tourism,” Otte said. “The fishing, hiking and biking will all be endangered” if frack sand mining expands in the county, he added.