The Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors is asking the Winneshiek County Planning and Zoning Commission to weigh in on frac-sand mining in Winneshiek County.
At its regular meeting Monday morning, the Supervisors approved a resolution on a 4-0 vote, asking the Commission to "provide input on the adoption of a moratorium on the consideration and/or approval of conditional-use permits for industrial frac-sand mining." (Board Chair John Logdson was absent.)
Earlier this month, the Supervisors heard from a number of citizens who raised concerns about frac-sand mining's effect on the landscape and tourism, water quality, traffic safety and infrastructure, among others.
Last month, the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors passed an 18-month moratorium on frac-sand mining, following several public hearings on the subject, which drew a variety of comments from the public.
Local Attorney Karl Knudson of Decorah represents both the Allamakee County Protectors and the Winneshiek County Protectors, local groups formed to monitor the status of frac-sand 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.
Chris Wiltgen of Wiltgen Construction attended the meeting to clear up some "misinformation" about current mining operations in Winneshiek County.
"There has been some misinformation about one of the mines in our county. We use it for dairy sand. There is no frac mining going on there. We use that sand to service up to 10 dairy operations," said Wiltgen.
"They do have a permit just for that," explained Thompson.
Frac sand is used for "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing, a 75-year-old technique used to release petroleum, natural gas (including shale gas, tight gas and coal seam gas) or other substances for extraction. Frac sand, or silica, is quartz sand of a certain size and shape that is suspended in fluid and injected into oil and gas wells under high pressure. The fluid pressure opens and enlarges fractures as well as creates new ones. Sand grains are carried into these fractures and prop them open after the fluid is pumped out.
At Monday's meeting, Supervisor Dean Thompson said his primary concern is the current Winneshiek County comprehensive plan may not adequately address heavy truck traffic, nuisance noise, dust and an increased risk of accidents that would result from a potential boom in frac-sand mining.
"The St. Peter is also an important aquifer, and the protection of that aquifer is of crucial importance. It requires further study," said Thompson.
Supervisor Mark Kuhn also expressed concerns about the potential of an adjoining county mining sand and using Winnneshiek County roads to load sand onto the railroad.
"If they're going to use a rail spur in Winneshiek County, this is something we need to communicate about," said Kuhn.
Supervisor Floyd Ashbacher said if an outside company is using a state highway (for example, traveling south on 52 from Minnesota), there may be nothing the county can do about it.
Wiltgen said while his company can get on board with a moratorium on mining for frac sand, "the moment we turn to dairy sand, where you all call it industrial sand, that puts us in the mix. That's where our concerns are coming from ... You need the descriptor 'frac' for that purpose. Industrial sand is what we use for our dairy customers."
Ashbacher said it is not the Supervisors' intent to interfere with existing industrial sand mining business.
"We're aware we need sand for concrete, sand for blacktop and for dairy bedding," said Supervisor Dennis Karlsbroten.
Thompson said the challenge in coming up with a moratorium is to have the language included in any ordinance meet its intent.
"In Fillmore County (Minn.), they have one set of rules handling the local economy and one that applies exclusively to sand for hydraulic fracturing," said Thompson.
"I'm with you. I don't think this document is with us," added Wiltgen, referring to the proposed resolution.
Wiltgen added he wants to make sure the county is using the moratorium "to do something, instead of just stalling for a while ... this is not me defending frac sand, but are we then going to penalize the furniture delivery truck or the grain delivery truck? We can't just go after the frac sand trucking industry."
Karlsbroten said Wiltgen had brought up a good point.
"If you pay your license fees and insurance and you're hauling a legal load, why can't you drive on the road? It's a very good point," said Karlsbroten.
Winneshiek County Zoning Administrator Tony Phillips said during a moratorium, he thinks the Planning and Zoning Commission will need some unbiased research.
"P and Z can go to these places (other counties), but we don't have experts on road use and road deterioration and frac sand in general. Will we be hiring someone to do this for us?" asked Phillips.
Thompson replied, "I don't know. And I think it's part of my responsibility to help us find some answers."
Karlsbroten offered to supply the Commission with information the Board has collected from adjacent counties.
"I hope both we and Planning and Zoning would have ample time for a public hearing, input from business and input from the community. We're all in this together," said Thompson.
Mark Olson of Olson Explosives said he doesn't see what the county has to gain from a moratorium.
"I think it's unfair to the landowner who maybe has an opportunity to go through the proper channels," said Olson.
Steve McCargar, a former Winneshiek County Supervisor and environmentalist, responded, "I think what we're going to ultimately come down to is a balance between the people and producers who are doing mining for a living and the people who live in communities. They're concerned about large-scale mining. What we're going to ultimately do in Winneshiek County is strike a balance ... We understand there will be mining in Winneshiek County ... What we're asking the Board to do is direct Planning and Zoning to evaluate those issues of scale, landscape effects, health effects and economic effects."
Wendy Stevens, who serves on the Commission, said she would support a moratorium.
"Right now, I don't know enough about this to make good decisions. I would welcome a moratorium that would give us a chance to research these things in order to make the best decision for Winneshiek County on a comprehensive basis, rather than case by case," said Stevens.
"I think we have to look at both sides of the issue and keep an open mind to it. Keep in mind the citizen, but businesses that operate here too. There are a lot of unknowns," said Ashbacher.
Following the meeting, Phillips said he had checked with County Attorney Andy Vander Maaten, regarding the timeframe for discussing the moratorium.
He said the soonest the Commission would begin discussing the Board's request would be at its April 9 meeting.