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Ask Mr. Answer Person: Does the US Geological Survey's airborne survey of Decorah have anything to do with frac sand mining?"

Posted: Tue, Mar 5, 2013 4:27 PM

Cyndi e-mails: Dear Mr. Answer Person: Is there a purpose to know if there are potentials for nickel, copper and platinum in the area when groups have been organized against mining frac sand?  Is the discovery of these metals going to lead to future mining?  And will they be thought of as causing the same destruction and concern as a frac mine?  And why did the helicopter have fly over my house in the middle of town several times a day?   You can only grid an area so much not to mention over a whole weekend?  In fact, I saw it return this Saturday again after it had been gone all week." 

Mr. Answer Person says: Cyndi, I appreciate your e-mail because I've been hearing all sorts of theories about the "real" purpose of the USGS survey. 

People are free to draw their own conclusions, including that the airborne survey is a secret plan by the Klingons to enslave us all.  But let's repeat a few facts before everyone starts drawing their own conclusions:

First of all, the sand used in natural gas and shale oil production is found near the surface, not buried underground.  Many of the companies that are producing this sand are in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, where St. Peter Sandstone is located.  Maps already exist of where to find this sand, so there's no need to spend $800,000 to fly helicopters over the area.

Secondly, the data collected by this survey will be available to everyone--and this includes possible future mining operations.  But it's also important to point out that any such mining operations would have to win several local permits.  That means you should continue to be alert to any such proposals--but there's nothing pending right now.  In fact, even if huge deposits of nickel, copper and platinum were discovered under Decorah--a big "if" at this point--it would take several years to analyze the data and prepare a mining permit application.

Finally, as for whether the helicopter flights pose anything more than an annoyance, it would be a good time to re-post the original news release from USGS.  You can choose to believe it or not believe it, but you should know what the federal agency is saying, so here, once again, is their news release:

"U.S. Geological Survey scientists plan to conduct the first comprehensive, high-resolution airborne survey to study the rock layers under a region of northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota, starting December 2012 and lasting through January 2013. When the data analysis is complete, resulting state-of-the-art, 3-D subsurface maps will help USGS researchers improve an assessment of mineral and water resources of the region.

As part of this research, both a low flying airplane and helicopter with auxiliary instrumentation will be used. Residents and visitors should not be alarmed to witness either of these instruments flying low to the ground near the Decorah, Iowa, and Spring Grove, Minn., region.

"Modern society is critically dependent on clean water and a vast array of minerals to maintain and enhance our quality of life," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "The USGS uses the latest technology to find new sources of these valuable commodities, even when buried deep beneath the Earth's surface, and places that information in the public domain to benefit all Americans."

The airplane is under contract to the USGS through Bell Geospace; the helicopter through Geotech. The aircrafts will be operated by experienced pilots who are specially trained and approved for low-level flying. All flights are coordinated with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure flights are in accordance with U.S. law.

The survey area is thought to be part of the 1.1 billion year old Midcontinent Rift, a major structure that stretches across much of the central United States. Rocks of the Midcontinent Rift include large volumes of mafic rocks. In the Lake Superior region, these rocks contain significant resources of nickel, copper and platinum group elements.

USGS scientists plan to use the new geophysical data to help determine if there is potential for similar resources to exist in the survey area. A secondary goal is to evaluate the geologic structure as it relates to water resources. This research is meant to study deep rocks, beneath limestone and sandstone layers.

The helicopter will carry large electromagnetic and magnetic instruments from a cable underneath. A DC-3, retrofitted with modern avionics and gas turbine engines, will carry gravity gradient instruments. Because different rock types differ in their content of water, magnetic minerals, and density, the resulting geophysical maps allow visualization of the geologic structure below the surface. None of the instruments carried on the aircraft pose a health risk to people or animals.

This survey will be flown in a grid pattern, by both aircraft at different times. East-west lines will be flown mile apart at elevations from 100-500 feet above the ground, and 2 miles apart in a north-south direction. All survey flights will occur during daylight hours.

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