Officials say western South Dakota could play a key role in energy development in North Dakota and elsewhere because of special sand used to help extract oil and gas.
The South Dakota Geological Survey is investigating whether silica sand found mainly in the Black Hills is suitable for hydraulic fracturing operations. Some environmental groups have complained.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, involves pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to break up shale rock and allow the oil to flow.
The Rapid City Journal reports (http://bit.ly/YxJiYy) that two companies, Sandman Products LLC and Cambrian Enterprises LLC, have obtained exploration permits to test the fine sand.
David Ganje, an Aberdeen native who owns Cambrian Enterprises, said the sand is in a prime location to serve oil and gas fields of North Dakota, eastern Wyoming and Montana.
"All the consultants I've spoken with said this would put us in a unique situation," Ganje said. "This is a specialized mineral sand."
The idea of mining sand has some detractors because of the potential impacts on the environment and the health risks from exposure to the fine sand. The process is being challenged in Minnesota and other states, said Gary Heckenlaible, a community organizer for ACTion for the Environment.
"We are definitely against it," said Heckenlaible of Rapid City. "Mining for fracking sands doesn't present the problems of uranium and gold mining. But it has a host of problems of its own.
"What it basically is is a big gravel pit that has lots of noise and dust, and that dust from the silica sand is so fine it can cause lung damage to the people who work there and in surrounding areas," he said.
State geologist Derric Iles acknowledged the danger and said that's why government agencies regulate the mining of sand.
"It's a real concern with certain exposure to silica dust," he said. "I think all the companies that mine this are cognizant of that, know what the rules are and use dust control as part of what they would do."