UI Researchers Study Impacts of Frac Sand Mining

By Jill Kasparie, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Researchers from the University of Iowa are digging in to a sand mining issue.

They just received a federal grant for $125,000 to do a new study.

"There's a lot of anxiety about this issue right now," said University of Iowa Associate Professor Thomas Peters.

They are studying the impact of a key piece of fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing. The process uses high pressure water to break rock and release natural gas and oil. That sand is found in Iowa and is mixed in the water to keep the cracks open.

There's a growing concern that mining sand, known as Crystalline Silica, might be harmful to communities. Peters and his researchers are preparing to deploy a lab full of equipment.

"We do know it's a hazard but we are looking to see how much gets into the home for indoor air sampling and what happens outside of people's homes," Peters said.

"The question is how much are you exposed to? if you are not exposed to a lot, then it's not a big hazard," said University of Iowa Professor David Osterberg.

Much of this sand is found in northeast Iowa, in places like Allamakee and Winneshiek counties. Officials in each have a moratorium in place preventing any new sand mining companies until they know more.

"The supervisors want to have some kind of knowledge as soon as they can," Osterberg said.

Researchers said the sand particles could cause serious health concerns if they get into people's lung.

They're doing the study in Wisconsin where there are already several of the sand mining operations.

"Iowa has not had much development yet, but Wisconsin has had tremendous growth," Osterberg said.

The team will deploy samplers to test the air. Researchers will set them up near mining facilities and in areas where the sand is being transported, like near train tracks.

Researchers said while there's not much known about the impacts of the relatively new mining process, the team is determined to identify any potential problems.

Osterberg said there's only one frac sand mining operation in Iowa right now. There has been, however, some interest in developing them in Northeast Iowa as the demand for the sand grows. The University of Iowa study on air quality will last one year.
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