University of Iowa research examines health effects of frac sand mining


A frac sand mining operation in Wisconsin in 2012. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)
A frac sand mining operation in Wisconsin from 2012. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | October 9, 2014

Crystalline silica – a compound used in frac sand mining – is a known carcinogen and has been for centuries according to a University of Iowa researcher.

Dr. Peter Thorne – head of the UI’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health – was in Decorah last week for a Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors meeting where he discussed health consequences associated with frac sand mining. Unlike hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) which drills deep into the earth’s surface to extract oil, frac sand mining is the practice of mining sand to be used for fracking.  The sand – which consists of crystalline silica – acts as a proppant  “to keep the fissures open and thereby aid extraction [of oil].”

Last fall the UI’s  Environmental Health Sciences Research Center was awarded a $124,868 grant to study how frac sand mining affects air quality and the associated public health risks. Thorne and his collegues have conducted their research in Winneshiek and Allamakee Counties in Iowa in addition to parts of southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. The study will look at air quality and inhalation toxicology from silica particulates associated with the mining operation itself as well as transportation of the silica.

Earlier this year the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors passed what may be the nation’s strictest frac sand mining ordinance while Winnishiek County recently passed a moratorium on frac sand mining  effective through October 15, 2015.

Iowa City film fest to feature documentary about frac sand mining


Nick Fetty | August 21, 2014
A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Caroll Mitchell/Flickr)
A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)

The 8th annual Landlocked Film Festival will take place in downtown Iowa City this weekend and among the films being shown is a documentary that examines the affects that frac sand mining has had on the environment as well as the communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Price of Sand – directed by Minnesota native Jim Tittle – examines the recent boom in mining operations for pure silica. This silica is used in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) operations as well as for manufacturing materials such as glass and toothpaste. The silica acts as a proppant or “a material used in hydraulic rock fracturing in order to keep the fissures open and thereby aid extraction.” The size and shape of different proponents play “a critical role in keeping fractures open and at the desired conductivity.”

These frac sand mining operations are most common along the “driftless area” – also called the Paleozoic Plateau – which “is a unique region of the Upper Mississippi River Basin with a landscape that is rich with ecological and economic opportunities. The area was by-passed by the last continental glacier and has differential weathering and erosion that results in a steep, rugged landscape referred to as karst topography.” The driftless area includes portions of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northwest Illiniois, and northeast Iowa. Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa currently have a “moratorium on mining.”

Proponents of the practice say that frac sand mining provides a valuable resource while creating jobs. Opponents say that it brings increased traffic as well as wear and tear on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to rural areas. Opponents are also concerned about the potential health effects associated with frac sand mining.

The viewing will take place at 4 p.m. on Friday August 22 in Room A at the Iowa City Public Library. It will be followed by discussion from a panel of experts from the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.

“The size and the shape of silica make it a particularly dangerous substance. It is regulated as a human carcinogen. It causes siliceous, it causes tuberculous, it causes problems with kidney disease. According to studies on siliceous we can get a certain amount, maybe up to three micrograms per cubic meter, and we have no ill health effects but above that level, so if we have agricultural dust as well as dust coming from a sand plant, we may be above that threshold and then we may begin to see the scarring and the progression of disease associated with silica exposure.”

-University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Associate Nursing Professor Crispin Pierce during an interview with Iowa Public Radio on August 21, 2014.

Iowa’s Allamakee County looks to implement nation’s strictest frac sand mining ordinance


Nick Fetty | June 5, 2014
Photo via Erick Gustafson; Flickr
Photo via Erick Gustafson; Flickr

On Tuesday, the Allamakee County (Iowa) Board of Supervisors voted 3-0 to approve what looks to be “the most strict frac sand mining ordinance in the nation,” according to Robert Nehman, President of the Allamakee County Protectors.

The Board not only intends to protect environmental and agricultural interests with this ordinance but also aims to reduce the impact on county infrastructure – such as roads and bridges – that often see increases in heavy traffic due to frac sand mining operations. The ordinance is in response to the plethora of frac sand mining operations that have popped up all over Wisconsin since 2009.

In January, the Iowa Policy Project compiled a report about frac sand mining in northeast Iowa and the Cedar Rapids Gazette editorial board published an article about the implications of frac sand mining in northeast Iowa in February.

For more information, check out the draft of the ordinance.

EDIT: Post originally stated it was the nation’s strictest “fracking” ordinance.  The ordinance instead applies to “sand frac mining.”