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Winneshiek County Leaders Consider Frac Sand Ban

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DECORAH, Iowa - Even though Winneshiek County is miles from the Mississippi River, one county executive believes Decorah to be within an hour from where frac sand really leaves aits football.

"The epicenter, as far as frac sand I know, is in St. Charles, Minnesota," said county supervisor Dennis Karlsbroten. "That's the center of it and it branches out into Wisconsin and northeast Iowa."

Karlsbroten, who recently joined the board, said he is a landowner with property near the Minnesota state line and he has been studying this issue for "three to four years".

In recent years, the process of extracting the Jordan and St. Peter sand out of the mines and shipping the finished product to area with oil and natural gas exploration has led to an economic boom, especially in many Western Wisconsin counties near the Mississippi River.

"There's demand for it in North Dakota, demand for it in Texas and Oklahoma to restart some old oil wells," said Karlsbroten. "Also, Pennsylvania, New York and parts of Ohio, where they are fracking for natural gas."

Yet this rush for decent-paying jobs and more opportunity has also been met with fierce opposition in many places. Earlier this month, the three-person Board of Supervisors in neighboring Allamakee County approved a moratorium of frac sand mining within the county until at least the summer of 2014.

Now Winneshiek County is also considering a moratorium. The county has held multiple forums on the issue and opposition groups have popped up with Facebook pages.

Karlsbroten said he expects more discussion at the next supervisors' meeting, on Monday morning in Decorah.

"It's quite new to everybody in the county," said Karlsbroten. "There are some strong opinions against it, I'm quite sure."

The Pattison Sand Company in Clayton, along the Mississippi River in Clayton County, is the only operation sand mine, specializing in the St. Peter sand that is such high demand. The Pattison family has owned the property since 1983 but, until 2007, the focus was on operating as a grain facility.

Six years ago, the demand for the silica sand amid the 300 acres of the quarry led ownership to move into frac sand.

Beth Regan, a permits and compliance officer with Pattison Sand Company, took KCRG crews on a 40-minute, above-ground tour, of the facilities on Thursday.

Regan said the economic benefits have been very noticeable in the area. In 2008, the company had about 50 employees. The administrative office reports Pattison has 169 workers, coming from a radius of up to 50 miles away. Regan said the hourly wage of a Pattison worker averages out to more than $17 an hour.

"We also spend millions with area vendors," Regan said.

Controversy continues to hover over the industry. Frac sand mining opponents in Allamakee County pointed to the tourism appeal of Lansing would be affected if sand trucks were constantly coming through the area.

This was a concern, just north of Clayton, in McGregor in 2012. A Minneapolis Star-Tribune article quoted the town's mayor and business leaders talking about hundreds of sand trucks along the main streets in McGregor.

Regan said the company will use trains on two different tracks to send the frac sand out after it is processed. One is just outside just the facility in Clayton. The other requires a truck hauling the sand to a track in Prairie du Chien, Wisc., just across the Mississippi from McGregor.

When asked about the 2012 article and if Pattison sand trucks are still driving through downtown McGregor, Regan wrote, in an e-mail, that issue has been addressed.

"Our trucks have been running through Garnavillo (not McGregor) since (at least) June of 2012," wrote Regan.

Reached by phone on Thursday, McGregor business owner Linda Boeke confirmed the sand trucks have not been heard on downtown streets recently.

Another major criticism from frac sand opponents is the environmental concerns, both to the land itself after the sand has been extracted and for the air quality in the neighboring region.

In Wisconsin, where frac sand mining has become a major industry, Governor Scott Walker asked state lawmakers just this week for more money to monitor the air quality at the state's many frac sand mining facilities.

All of these elements leave people back in Winneshiek County with plenty to ponder, from economic benefit to environmental concerns.

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