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Niobrara River sand considered for fracking

NIOBRARA, Neb. -- The problem of excess sedimentation in the Missouri River and Lewis and Clark Lake isn't going away soon. But some innovative ideas about what to do -- such as using sediment for fracking -- are being discussed.

Ron Zelt, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Nebraska Water Science Center in Lincoln, presented on the topic of fracking sand requirements and managing sediment. The presentation was during the Missouri Sedimentation Action Coalition annual meeting Tuesday in Niobrara, Neb., held at the town's fire hall in the community located just over the South Dakota-Nebraska border.

Zelt said there's a study ongoing to examine the sediment that comes from the Niobrara River area to see if it could be used as frac sand. Fracking is used in oil and gas production with geologic formation using hydraulic fracturing. The sand would be used as a proppant, which are particles used to hold open a fracture in an oil or gas reservoir after fracture pressure is relieved.

Zelt and those studying hope to make about 25 borings that would be two inches wide and would attempt to dig 10 feet down using hydraulic equipment. The coalition hopes to collect 50 samples to send to a university in Montana that has a proppant research group.

Four sandbar sites in the river from the South Dakota Highway 37 bridge at Running Water downstream about five miles toward Springfield are being considered. The samples will be assessed and compared to frac sand used in North Dakota as part of the Bakken oil basin. Sand from the Loop River in the Nebraska sand hills is being used for some of the work. Zelt said the project just recently started and the Niobrara sand has, generally, pretty fine sand. The study is looking for the coarsest parts of the delta.

"We want to find out if it's comparable with what's been dredged from the Sand Hills area," Zelt said. "It's more of an exploratory project to see what's possible."

Zelt said boring should be wrapped up by the end of April, so as not to bother the piping plover -- an endangered species -- and its nesting period.

"We're trying to address the problem, but it's a case of that cost benefit analysis," said Sandy Stockholm, who is the executive director of the Missouri Sedimentation Action Coalition.

Zelt said there could be a benefit because the sediment above the Gavins Point Dam is about 150 miles closer than the sand coming from Wisconsin. And fracking sand is sold by the pound, not by the ton, which means you don't need a lot of the sand to go a long way.

"It's always hard to judge the economic benefits of the geological work," Zelt said.

Of course, even if the frac sand is there, it would be a long road to action. It would require federal action to do anything, Zelt said, because the river is under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and federal environmental laws would be in place.

Regardless if the fracking option works out, the sediment work rolls on. Their mission is still to educate.

"This is an effort that will last beyond my lifetime because this didn't happen in the last few years and it won't be resolved in the next few years either," said Larry Weiss, who is the president of the board of directors.