Before the Winneshiek County Planning and Zoning Commission considers a county moratorium on frac-sand mining, it wants more input from the public.
At Tuesday's meeting, the Commission passed a resolution scheduling a public hearing on the matter on a 6 to 1 vote. Commissioners Mike McGee, Steve Langland, John Berlage, Wendy Stevens, Leslie Cook and Mary Hoffman voted for the measure, with Doug Egeland voting against. Commission Chair Dan Langreck and Commissioner Donna Rasmussen were absent from the meeting.
A public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, May 14, at 7 p.m. at the Winneshiek County courthouse.
The Commission encourages members of the public to submit written comments and evidence-based documentation to support them prior to the public hearing date.
The motion came following a resolution by the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors two weeks ago asking the Commission to "provide input on the option of a moratorium on the consideration and/or approval of conditional-use permits for industrial frac-sand mining."
The Supervisors' motion was a response to concerns raised recently by local citizens about frac-sand mining's effect on the landscape, tourism, water quality, traffic safety and infrastructure, among others.
In February, the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors passed an 18-month moratorium on frac-sand mining, following several public hearings on the subject. Attorney Karl Knudson of Decorah represents both the Allamakee County Protectors and the Winneshiek County Protectors (WCP), local groups formed to monitor the status of frac-sand (or silica) mining in their respective counties.
Local business owners involved with sand mining for agricultural and road use have expressed concerns a moratorium could adversely affect their existing business operations.
Lyle Otte of Decorah started the discussion by saying the county's new comprehensive plan does not adequately deal with silica sand as a resource in Winneshiek County.
"Amending it will take time," said Otte, representing the WCP, which is encouraging the Commission to enact a two-year moratorium on the issue.
"I don't think two years is too much to ask. Please take your time to learn from other counties and states and perhaps to appoint a citizens' advisory committee," said Otte.
Knudson added a moratorium would be a way to "preserve the status quo" until the issue could be adequately studied. He pointed to existing frac-sand mining operations in Minnesota.
"They've had plenty of problems and they're likely to come down this way as they start to impose adequate regulations there. The miners will be looking for a weak spot. If we don't regulate, we will have a lot of inappropriate activity here," said Knudson.
With regard to a proposed resolution Knudson had presented to the Commission, Assistant County Attorney Steve Belay said he would not recommend the Board adopt that specific resolution.
"I would be happy to draft any proposed ordinances. This is kind of putting the cart in front of the horse, as you haven't decided to proceed in the manner that is drafted," said Belay.
Mark Olson of Decorah, president of Olson Explosives, said he is against a moratorium.
"The vehicle already exists to handle a frac-sand mine," he said, adding anyone applying would have to adhere to county ordinances and present their case to the Commission.
"This Commission could then review and advise or disadvise or throw it off the table," he said.
"I see no reason to approve a moratorium," he said, adding he feels the different proposed timeframes for a moratorium are "totally outrageous."
Jon Batchelder of Decorah said he is concerned the county is "rushing into this (a moratorium) when there is really nothing on the table ... The county is going to spend money that could be spent on other matters."
He added he sees nothing wrong with appointing a three-member group to do some fact-finding on the issue and to possibly visit some frac-sand facilities in neighboring counties.
Batchelder expressed concerns there are "a select few people trying to control the conversation and close it. I'm sure all of you have read the editorials. What I find in them is a lot of emotion and not many facts."
Stand to lose
Liz Rog of rural Decorah said she stands to lose a lot if a frac-sand mine were operating near her property.
"I've been studying what's happening in Southwest Wisconsin. Two years ago there were 10 or 12 mines, now there are 115," she said.
"Once the horse was out of the stable, it kept on going ... There is a cloud of silica dust that covers 10 counties ... I don't want that to happen here," she said.
Craig Cutting of rural Decorah said, "We all want to sit here and think we live in a nice county, but all of the owners of these mines live somewhere else and let the neighboring property owners suffer."
City Council Member Julie Fischer reminded the Commission Decorah was recently designated a Blue Zone Community.
"This means we are a place that holds health and wellness and quality of living in highest standard. It's a great attractant for tourists as there are not many natural areas left in Iowa," she said.
"If we have fine micron silica dust in the air, that could be a great deterrent to our tourist industry."
Kurt Oakes, general manager at Olson Explosives, said in today's environment, "It is important to do things responsibly. Through proper engineering and design constraints, things can be done responsibly and properly."
He said mining is one of the most regulated industries in the United States and falls under the purview of the Mine Safety and Health Administration; the Environmental Protection Agency; the state Department of Natural Resources; Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and local county governments.
"There are a multitude of permits required. An operation doesn't just open up overnight," he said.
He added in Wisconsin, there are "many communities greatly benefitting from sand mining for the hydraulic fracturing process" and cited Bloomer, Wis. as "reaping multiple rewards."
John Rodecap, a farmer and former ISU Extension watershed coordinator from Calmar, said the major concern he has is how frac-sand mining operations might affect water quality.
"I'm not against frac-sand mining, but I think we need to spend time looking into these issues," he said.
Responding to Batchelder's comments, Dick Janson of Decorah said a moratorium would not limit dialogue, it would encourage it.
"A moratorium has no impact on existing conditional-use permits. The fact there are no permits pending means a moratorium is not going to harm anyone," said Janson.
Egeland, the only Commissioner to vote against setting a public hearing, said there is no frac sand in Winneshiek County.
"If we had it, they would have been mining it three years ago," said Egeland.
He added he thinks a moratorium is unnecessary.
"We handled the last issue with the Quandahl bluff sand pit right here in this group, and I haven't heard any repercussions. I don't see why we need more regulations for something that's probably not going to happen," he said.
Langland added while he could not vote on the issue until he has more facts, like Egeland, he has been told there is no silica sand of the quality companies are looking for in Winneshiek County.
He added he "can't imagine employers (of sand mining) would put their employees at risk of silicosis."
Egeland added the Pattison mine in Clayton County has been in operation since 1880.
"The only death they've ever had there was when someone got run over by a payloader," he said.
Commissioners Hoffman, McGee, Langland, Berlage and Cook said they'd like to receive more information.
Langland encouraged "anyone who has an interest in this issue and could send us some evidence-based studies" to do so, "so we can have the most information possible to consider."
Berlage added, "I've gotten several letters from people, mostly against frac-sand mining. If there are any folks in favor of it who would like to send us a letter, we're interested in both sides."