Continuing coverage of proposed mining rezoning

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Areas of land along Great River Road, a National Scenic Byway, are being considered for rezoning to heavy industrial for use by Pattison Sand Company. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

Discussion of frac sand mining in Clayton County began again with a meeting of over 60 area stakeholders on Dec. 8 and continues with the beginning of study committee meetings to review and discuss the possible impact of rezoning 726 acres of land from agricultural to heavy industrial for the purpose of underground mining, processing, storing and shipment of silica sand and its byproducts. County supervisors recently approved a request from Janet Ott, county health and zoning administrator, to apply for a $2,500 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque to set up the committee.

Pattison expects that the rezoned land would be used for underground mining, processing, storing and shipment of silica sand and its byproducts decades down the road. “We will only be doing underground mining in the re-zoned areas and this will not be disturbing the land or activities on top of the land, with the exception of minimal ventilation openings,” said Pattison’s public relations representative Angela Sessions. 

Although many spoke up during the Dec. 8 meeting requesting an impact study and such a study could potentially ease environmental anxieties over the project, Sessions told The Press, “While we do not oppose an impact study, we do not feel it is necessary in this case. The rezoning we are requesting will have almost no impact. In fact, with the capital investments and rail improvements we envision, we will probably have less impact going forward.”

During a two hour public discussion on Dec. 8, numerous landowners, frequent visitors, and community members expressed their desire that the planning and zoning commission proceed very cautiously with the request. However, Pattison Sand Company feels that the community backs the proposed project. “In general, the community has been very supportive. There has been some fear generated by those who oppose mining and hydraulic fracturing. We are confident that sound decisions will be made based upon facts and the vast majority within the community will see those unsubstantiated fears that have been generated as greatly exaggerated. The economic benefits to Clayton County and the surrounding areas far outweigh the concerns, and those concerns will be addressed,” said Sessions.

The issues to be addressed by the impact study group include many of the concerns expressed by stakeholders at the Dec. 8 meeting, such as noise and traffic; effects on wildlife, air, and water quality; the impact on tourism and property values along a national scenic byway, and potential consequences of vent openings from the mine. 

Allamakee County placed an 18-month moratorium on frac sand mining in 2013 before passing an ordinance stating that while frac mining operations are allowed, they cannot use chemicals to wash or process silica sand, or apply any chemical or toxic substance in excavating silica sand. Sand mines also cannot be located within 1000 feet of any spring, cave, or sinkhole, among other restrictions – restrictions that essentially keep mines from operating. 

Nearby Winneshiek County placed a 28-month moratorium on frac sand mining which expired in October of 2015 after an ordinance was passed in September to minimize road and bridge damage from high-volume and heavy truck traffic hauling industrial minerals, protect natural landscapes from scarring and damage of excessive excavation and mining activity, protect fragile karst features, water resources, aquifers, streams (including trout streams), and rivers from excessive contamination and appropriation, minimize soil erosion, protect agricultural land and farming activity, protect existing recreational and tourist businesses, protect residents from unhealthy air emissions of mining activity, and monitor and control the extraction and mining of industrial minerals. 

In light of such actions, Sessions commented, “We believe that there are some who have created undue fear out of a misunderstanding of the facts and the studies that have been done. For example, two major studies have been conducted concerning fears about dust. Both the study by Wisconsin and one done by the state of Minnesota confirmed that there is no danger to people living near a mine or loading facility. They may also be unaware that we recycle over 90% of our water and we use technology borrowed from the bottled water industry.”

Oil-rich Iran reentered the global economy early this year after disabling nuclear infrastructure in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions, resulting in the lowest oil prices in over a decade and the highest production levels in years. When asked how these events have impacted the sand mining industry, Sessions responded, “While the worldwide glut of oil is impacting everyone in the energy business, we are quite optimistic that as the glut is absorbed, markets will stabilize and growth in our business will resume. Our business is very capital intensive, requiring a long-term view. If we are going to make significant investments now, we need to make certain that we will have access to adjacent sand reserves,” she said, referencing the proposed rezoning. 

  The Clayton County impact study group held their first meeting on Thursday, Feb. 4. "How they want to proceed with researching and looking at studies will be up to them," said Ott of the group. "At this first meeting we'll do introductions and I'll pass out copies of what I have for them. From there they will decide when to meet and what to do/discuss."

These will be working group meetings, not public meetings, so group members will be talking amongst themselves. The public is welcome to sit and listen but they won't necessarily be given the opportunity to comment unless the group asks for information from someone specifically. When meetings are scheduled, dates will be posted on the county's web page under the Planning and Zoning page. 

"My hope is that the group can review and consolidate study information and give me that information so I can pass it on to the Planning and Zoning Commission. How they want to do this is their choice," said Ott, who plans to share the finished study with whomever requests it.

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