Allamakee County, Iowa — a rural county in the northeast corner of Iowa bounded north by Minnesota and east by the Mississippi River and Wisconsin — 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.
"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.
Silica sand, a natural resource found in northeast Iowa, the southeast corner of Minnesota and much of Wisconsin, is found in three Iowa counties — Allamakee, Winneshiek and Clayton.
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 oils. The process of fracking creates controversy because of excessive chemical use and contamination to water supply and air.
But while fracking is controversial on its own, so is mining the sand used for the process because of its impact on wildlife habitats in the hills, forests and bluffs for which Allamakee County and several other northeast Iowa counties are known.
Allamakee County residents are not alone with their concerns about frac sand mining. Their neighbors to the west, in Winneshiek County, have passed a moratorium and are considering a countywide ordinance to restrict sand mining.
Clayton County allows frac sand mining without the kinds of restrictions found in its neighbors to the north.
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. 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; nor can they be located within any portion of a Bluffland Protection District that the county’s zoning law defines, or within one mile of any stream, river, recreational trail or scenic byway.
Mining operations are prohibited from using a process called hydraulic dredging or any similar method. The use of previously mined, processed and contaminated sand also is prohibited.
The ordinance so thoroughly defines the county’s dominant features that it virtually keeps large operations out.
County snapshot: Allamakee agriculture operations
There are exactly 1,011 farms in Iowa’s Allamakee County, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture. Those farms account for about 289,000 acres of farmland, land that could be affected by future efforts to mine for silica sand.
Crop sales totals for the county reached $91.3 million in 2012, according to the census. Corn farming was the staple crop operation.
Livestock sales, however, accounted for the bulk of the county’s agricultural profits. Census information shows that the county recorded more than $129 million in livestock, poultry and related-product sales during the 2012 reporting period. Hog and pig farming was the main livestock operation.
Keeping the fight local
The effort to enact Allamakee’s countywide ordinance began in 2012 when residents learned that Minnesota Proppant LLC of St. Charles, Minnesota, 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, 2014, when the ordinance took effect.
While writing the moratorium, the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors and Blake toured the Pattison Sand Co. mine in Clayton County to look at environmental impacts of sand mining there.
Minnesota Proppant LLC withdrew its application when Allamakee County required a traffic-impact study after roadways to be used when transporting materials were found to be substandard and unable to handle the necessary traffic. But county officials continued to hold public forums on sand mining regulations.
In eight public forums 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 concerns were:
- A potential decline in tourists and tourism income derived from scenery, hiking, fishing, hunting, camping and other activities that are a main revenue source in Allamakee County.
- Potential chemical contamination of the Jordan aquifer, which supplies industrial, agricultural and domestic consumption for two-thirds of Iowa.
- Increase in truck traffic transferring materials to and from mine sites
- Increase in the likelihood of serious accidents or mishaps with traffic sharing roadways
- Fugitive silica dust that could expose residents living around the mine and which, if inhaled, can cause silicosis
- A lack of research on hydraulic fracturing and its safety
- Stripping the land of its natural beauty and compromising the quality of life for residents living in Allamakee County
After the forums the three-person Allamakee County Board of Supervisors, Blake and members from a group called Allamakee County Protectors developed the 18-month moratorium that restricted sand mining.
“We got everything we asked for,” said Jack Knight, a leader of Allamakee County Protectors, formed in October 2012 and leading the move to keep frac sand mining out of the county.
“We don’t want to look back in 30 years and say we should have done something,” Robert Nehman, another group leader, said.
Allamakee County Protectors leaders said they set the goal of keeping regulation of sand mining in the hands of local officials instead of state regulators because only three Iowa counties contain minable frac sand. Beyond that, thought, group members said they feared that mining corporations would have a cozy relationship with state government officials.
Citizens from low-population counties could not defend their interests in Des Moines often enough against lobbyist efforts of mining corporations, their reasoning went. Yet, those citizens must live with long-term impacts of sand mining.
Another concern of the Allamakee County Protectors was that, under Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, Iowa migt act in the same manner as Wisconsin, which, under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, has been a sympathetic state for sand mining.
Governor touts benefits
In an IowaWatch interview earlier this summer, Branstad said sand mining should be regulated, but that it produces economic benefits.
“We do need to be sure the state protects the environment and that we do this (mine sand) in the safest way possible,” Branstad said. “But I do think this has been a very good thing for our country and for our state’s economy.”
Branstad 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 Company 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. CF Industries, responsible for the fertilizer plant expansion in Woodbury County, has a construction budget of $1.7 billion, Woodbury County Engineer Mark Nahra said.
“Fracking sand is Iowa’s small share of the benefit,” Branstad said. “It’s been a very economical way to meet some of the needs of our state.”
While part of the controversy about frac sand mining is that it harms the environment, many sand and gravel pits can be found all over Iowa, some of which have been repurposed into county parks or lakes.
Branstad recalled his days growing up near a gravel pit in Leland, Iowa, which has since been turned into Ambroson Recreation Area in Winnebago County.
“It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can be a good thing,” Branstad said.
Sand Mine Functions in Clayton County
Creators of Allamakee County’s ordinance looked at a sand mining operation in Clayton County to gauge environmental impacts. Pattison Sand Company LLC, set along the Mississippi River in Clayton, Iowa, is managed by Kyle Pattison.
In 2007 Pattison purchased and reopened a sand mine that had been established in the 1940’s and closed around 1982. Most of the mining is underground. Farmland is above some of the underground mine.
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 at the end of August 2014, 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.
From a county road a few miles south of Clayton, passersby can see one of the mine’s entrances. The entrance site is located on a dirt and sand covered hill, once covered with grass and trees.
“What we enjoy here is privacy,” Regan said.
Standing approximately 100 to 120 feet above river, the mine hosts two openings in a hill owned by Pattison for miners and equipment, Regan said.
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. Regan said the company has leased land from a private property owner and is building site entrances on a hill across the road from an existing mine entrance.
Expansion raises health concerns. Small sand particles can become stuck in the lungs and cause silicosis if silica sand is inhaled, said Andrew Nelson, doctoral student in human toxicology at the University of Iowa. Silicosis, which causes inflammation, scarring of lung tissue and a fever, also can cause fibrosis, cancer and other lung diseases.
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, so the possibility of residents contracting silicosis is minimal, Regan said.
Pattison 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 take the safety of our employees seriously,” Stroschein said. “We want people to be here for 40 years.”
Doug Hawker, senior environmental specialist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, routinely inspects the Pattison operation. Hawker, who has been dealing with Pattison for more than 20 years, has reported one regulatory violation since Pattison opened in 2007.
On Nov. 22, 2011, Hawker identified an accumulation of sand 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, Hawker and Regan said. Pattison Sand was required to pay a fine of $10,000 and replaced the filter.
Having only one violation since reopening the mine isn’t uncommon, Hawker said. “It’s what we expect, that’s why we permit them,” he said.
However, Regan said boaters on the Mississippi River in 2012 reported that gases from Pattison’s mine vent were blasted over the river. The gases contained nitrogen dioxide, which in high concentrations is harmful. Pattison addressed the complaint by switching the vent to an opening facing west over company property, Regan said.
Clayton County officials did not see a need for a countywide moratorium, County Supervisor Larry Gibbs said.
“We have no problem in our county,” Gibbs said. “They’re doing an excellent job.”
Gibbs said wildlife has not been affected by the underground mining since Pattison Sand reopened the mine. Gibbs also said Pattison has replanted more trees than have been cut down.
“Everyone has been cooperative with the mining under their land,” Gibbs said.
But some have not been happy at times. Two years ago residents in the Clayton County town of McGregor, 10 miles north of the mine, had complaints about sand-hauling trucks from the mine. City Administrator Lynette Sander said the problems dealt with the weight limits of trucks transporting material.
Residents were complaining about trucks shaking buildings and tossing dust through the town's business district. Reports at the time stated that McGregor officials thought negotiations with Pattison about the matter were difficult.
But Sander said in late August this year she had spoken with Pattison Sand and since has resolved the matter. She declined further comment.
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. Tony Phillips, Winneshiek County’s planning and zoning commissioner, said county officials are working on a tailor-made ordinance without using policies from Allamakee County’s ordinance.
Winneshiek County is using the moratorium 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.
“In our reading and visiting we found its intensity is different than quarrying that is part of our local economy,” Thompson said about frac sand mining.
Unlike Allamakee County’s moratorium, Winneshiek’s moratorium allows for lengthening or shortening the moratorium’s duration.
Winneshiek County officials at a public hearing heard mostly from people who oppose frac sand mining, especially members of a group called the Community Rights Alliance.
Formed in Winneshiek County in May 2013, Community Rights Alliance group members are working to create an all-out ban on frac sand mining in Winneshiek County. Alliance members wrote their own proposed countywide ordinance and presented it to Winneshiek County officials.
The Community Rights Alliance corresponded with a Pennsylvania-based public interest group, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, when writing its proposed ordinance.
Alliance member Liz Rog said the group’s proposed ordinance focuses on basic human rights rather than regulatory-based moves, although it would ban mining corporations.
“We’re trying to step out of the box,” Rog said. “We’re involved in trying to help preserve our county and the quality of life.”
Winneshiek County Supervisor Dennis Karlsbroten said banning sand mining companies is unconstitutional.
“We can’t just outright ban it, but we can regulate sand mining,” Karlsbroten said.
Karlsbroten foresaw sand mining industries coming to Iowa before Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties faced frac sand mining issues in their counties.
Karlsbroten, who owns 30 acres of land in the county, said a private contractor for a sand mining company approached him about five years ago about being allowed to mine on the land.
The sand mine company, whom Karlsbroten declined to reveal, conducted geological tests to determine if the sand under Karlsbroten’s land was the type of sand it was seeking. The sand under his land is St. Peter sandstone, but the company was looking for Jordan sandstone, another type of silica-rich sand.
“You can see it’s probably not going to go away until they find another energy source,” Karlsbroten said about frac sand mining, and the issues that mining raises.
This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news Website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.