Iowa hasn’t seen any of the controversial mining known as “fracking,” but there is a product used in the process that’s being sought in the state. Iowa has deposits of the fine silica sand that’s pumped into rocks along with water and chemicals to fracture rocks to help get out the oil and gas.
The Winnesheik County Board of Supervisors took public testimony Monday on a possible moratorium on fracking in the county over environmental concerns. Supervisor Dennis Karlsbroten of Decorah says about three years ago a construction company asked to take samples from a large hill that towers over his house and cattle breeding barns.
“I didn’t know what they wanted them for until they asked later on, and they never really told me other than that it would make me wealthy (laughs), and they would take my whole hill,” Karlsbroten says. He eventually learned that the company – which he declined to name – was looking at possibly mining for silica sand.
Karlsbroten says the company decided, at least for now, not to pursue mining in that spot. Other parts of northeast Iowa could be ripe for frac sand mining as the tons and tons of sand have become a valuable commodity from Texas to Canada. Retired Decorah schoolteacher Lyle Otte says the hills have a different kind of value.
“My wife and I have lived here for 30 years, and we love northeast Iowa and we want to make sure our children and grandchildren can enjoy the beauty of these hills also,” Otte says. So a couple of weeks ago, he organized a public meeting in Decorah, focused on what he sees as the dangers of sand mining. Otte says he fears a mining boom could threaten the area’s natural beauty, or lead to air and water pollution.
Another worry is traffic from heavy trucks used to haul the sand. Winneshiek County Engineer Lee Bjerke says the traffic impact is also an unknown. “It depends on how many mines, and how big these mines get, and how fast they intend to take the material out,” Bjerke says. Officials in neighboring Allamakee County approved an 18-month ban last month on frac sand mining so they can spend some time gathering information and looking at whether the county needs more zoning regulations.
Karlsbroten, the Winneshiek County Supervisor, says he’s still making up his mind about what he thinks his county’s policy should be. But he admits if a mining company offered him the kind of money he’s heard about in other places it would be tough to turn it down.
“Yeah, three dollars a ton, that’s nine-thousand dollars a day. Yeah, I’d probably have a place in the Cayman islands. I don’t know what I’d do. Hard to say,” Karlsbroten says. He admits he would want to move if the mining took away the hill that shelters his operation.
Mining companies and industry groups are cagey about talking about the value of sand for hydraulic fracturing, but a Wall Street Journal article last year put the price around $50 a ton. Karlsbroten says when you’re talking about an entire hill – even a small share of that profit could change your life.
“Now is that greed or what, I don’t know,” Karlsbroten says. “But you run all these things through your mind.” He says in an area with lots of hills full of sand — those questions are likely on many people’s minds. There is a frac sand mine in nearby Clayton County and plenty of them across the borders in Wisconsin and Minnesota.