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Sand rush splits a community


  • Photo 1 of 9

    The preferred sands pit


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    Ken Schmitt (r), Chippewa County Board of Supervisors, with blast contractors who work for EOG. In the background are beef cattle that will have to be moved as the sand pit expands.


  • Photo 3 of 9

    EOG processing plant in Chippewa Falls. The first rail car of sand left town Dec. 30, 2011, bound for Refugio Texas. The sand industry is reviving railroads in Northwestern Wisconsin.


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    A view of Sam and Wendy Lagesse’s home from the Preferred Sands wash plant. The wash plant is under construction. It will wash and sort sand from the mine pit.


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    Sam and Wendy Lagesse in their driveway, facing the pit, with their fields behind them.  Eventually, Preferred Sands will mine most of their property. 


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    Todd Murchison, regional manager for Preferred Sands, in the Lagesse pit. The sand here is valuable because it is hard and spherical, ideal for propping open cracks in shale.


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    Sam and Wendy Lagesse in their driveway, facing the mine pit. Sam is wearing his Preferred Sands vest.


  • Photo 8 of 9

    Wendy Loew, making hamburger with her kids in the garage. Wendy and her husband David have four children, ages 3-9. They raise beef cows (and goats and chickens) to feed themselves and their large extended family.


  • Photo 9 of 9

    The Loews installed solar panels because they think renewable energy is the power of the future. They worry about the impact of sand mining on air and water quality. Wendy is holding 3-year-old Rose and standing with (l-r), Gabriel, 5, Jared, 7, and Belinda,9.

Tess Vigeland: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And that law of physics can apply when you're talking about two neighbors, in one community, dealing with the fallout from a newly discovered commodity under their feet.

From the rolling green hills of Chippewa County, Wisc., Laurie Stern reports.


Wendy Loew: Go ahead big guy.

Laurie Stern: Wendy Loew and three of her kids are grinding meat into hamburger.

Wendy Loew: Turn it on.

Sound of grinder

They butchered the cow themselves. They get electricity from solar panels outside their barn.

Sound of children playing

Wendy Loew: I go out in the morning, I milk my goat, I feed my chickens,I take care of my cows, my husband goes to work.

David Loew: We don't spray any pesticides.

Wendy Loew: We don't use anything like that, because we're thinking about generations ahead. I mean you have to think about your neighbors.

The Loews built their house far from the road, which turns out to have been a good decision.

Sounds of construction

At the property next door, blast contractors are digging sand out of an enormous pit. They work for EOG, the energy company formerly known as Enron.

Sound of blast

The miners blow up the hills, dig out the sand, haul off the good stuff and put back the rest. Each day, hundreds of sand trucks drive down the road past Loews' farm. Wendy says last summer a haze hung in the air and all four kids were sick.

Wendy Loew: My two-year-old's complaining of her eyes hurting. That's not a normal two-year-old complaint. My kids pray every night -- and it's not something I started. But they pray that the sand companies and sand mines will go away. And that's what they pray.

The energy companies use the sand for fracking. They get oil and gas reserves out of the shale deep underground by blasting cracks in it. The sand from these Wisconsin hills props those cracks open.

Sam Lagesse: I'm Sam Lagesse and this is my wife Wendy.

Sam Lagesse is a big man in his late 50s. He built his own house on the small farm where he grew up. So did two of his children. His dad still lives in the old farmhouse. You wouldn't peg him as a guy to cause a fuss.

Sam Lagesse: We knew there was sand here, so...

Five years ago, Sam's dairy farm was struggling. A land developer told him his sand was worth more than his cows. He told Sam to check out the new market for frack sand.

Sam Lagesse: This company didn't come looking for me; I went looking for them.

Sam signed a contract with the mining company, Preferred Sands, based in Pennsylvania. He leased his land; the company gave him a job and a price per ton of sand. Typically, the companies buy sand for a couple bucks a ton. They wash it, sort it and dry it -- then turn around and sell it for a couple hundred bucks a ton.

Todd Murchison: Hey guys attention in the mine, we're over on the east side...

That's Todd Murchison, regional manager at Preferred Sands and Sam's boss.

Murchison: We started in October and washed 80,000 ton in about a month and a half, so we go through it fairly quickly.

Ken Schmitt: Now, where does your target material start here?

Ken Schmitt is on the county board.

Schmitt: Can you see it from here?

Contractor: We're on pay sand right there...

Like leaders in towns across the Midwest, he's trying to figure out how to regulate the new industry.

Contractor: We'll mine that out.

Schmitt: Yes, they're bringing jobs but there's also a cost. It's split neighborhoods and families. One faction wants to sell the family farm for sand and the other faction don't want to see grampa's farm dumped into an oil or gas well some place.

Wendy Loew wants the state to regulate the silica dust. She wants the county to limit the number of mines. She wants her neighbors to pay attention before it's too late. This is her husband David.

David Loew: What happens is they start checkerboarding an area. They'll get this neighbor and this neighbor. And pretty soon, you're in this area where there's sand mines all around you and it's like "Should we sell now while it's still worth something?"

Wendy Loew: We don't want to sell it and have someone use it for sand. And yet who do you sell it to that's not gonna do that? It's just a moral issue for us.

Wendy Lagesse: I think everyone should be able to do what they need to to make a living.

That's Wendy Lagesse, who's married to Sam, the farmer who started the sand rush here. Sam and Wendy say their social life has suffered and they no longer feel welcome in town.

Wendy Lagesse: Too many years of negative comments from too many people that you considered friends.

But when Sam walks down his driveway to work, he doesn't feel like a pariah -- more like a pioneer. Just a few feet from his house, the field stubble turns to sand. Sam knows his grandchildren will grow up counting dump trucks instead of dairy cows. But the way he sees it, he's at the hub of something great.

Sam Lagesse: All the jobs it creates for one thing. 'Cause the whole countryside used to be full of small farms like mine there and they're all going away, so we needed something.

Many rural communities through the upper Midwest are bracing for the impact of the sand rush. Some counties are passing moratoriums so they have time to study the issue. It's hard for them to decide whether frack sand mines are saving the region or savaging it.

In Chippewa County, Wisc., this is Laurie Stern for Marketplace Money.

Tess Vigeland: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And that law of physics can apply when you're talking about two neighbors, in one community, dealing with the fallout from a newly discovered commodity under their feet.

From the rolling green hills of Chippewa County, Wisc., Laurie Stern reports.


Wendy Loew: Go ahead big guy.

Laurie Stern: Wendy Loew and three of her kids are grinding meat into hamburger.

Wendy Loew: Turn it on.

Sound of grinder

They butchered the cow themselves. They get electricity from solar panels outside their barn.

Sound of children playing

Wendy Loew: I go out in the morning, I milk my goat, I feed my chickens,I take care of my cows, my husband goes to work.

David Loew: We don't spray any pesticides.

Wendy Loew: We don't use anything like that, because we're thinking about generations ahead. I mean you have to think about your neighbors.

The Loews built their house far from the road, which turns out to have been a good decision.

Sounds of construction

At the property next door, blast contractors are digging sand out of an enormous pit. They work for EOG, the energy company formerly known as Enron.

Sound of blast

The miners blow up the hills, dig out the sand, haul off the good stuff and put back the rest. Each day, hundreds of sand trucks drive down the road past Loews' farm. Wendy says last summer a haze hung in the air and all four kids were sick.

Wendy Loew: My two-year-old's complaining of her eyes hurting. That's not a normal two-year-old complaint. My kids pray every night -- and it's not something I started. But they pray that the sand companies and sand mines will go away. And that's what they pray.

The energy companies use the sand for fracking. They get oil and gas reserves out of the shale deep underground by blasting cracks in it. The sand from these Wisconsin hills props those cracks open.

Sam Lagesse: I'm Sam Lagesse and this is my wife Wendy.

Sam Lagesse is a big man in his late 50s. He built his own house on the small farm where he grew up. So did two of his children. His dad still lives in the old farmhouse. You wouldn't peg him as a guy to cause a fuss.

Sam Lagesse: We knew there was sand here, so...

Five years ago, Sam's dairy farm was struggling. A land developer told him his sand was worth more than his cows. He told Sam to check out the new market for frack sand.

Sam Lagesse: This company didn't come looking for me; I went looking for them.

Sam signed a contract with the mining company, Preferred Sands, based in Pennsylvania. He leased his land; the company gave him a job and a price per ton of sand. Typically, the companies buy sand for a couple bucks a ton. They wash it, sort it and dry it -- then turn around and sell it for a couple hundred bucks a ton.

Todd Murchison: Hey guys attention in the mine, we're over on the east side...

That's Todd Murchison, regional manager at Preferred Sands and Sam's boss.

Murchison: We started in October and washed 80,000 ton in about a month and a half, so we go through it fairly quickly.

Ken Schmitt: Now, where does your target material start here?

Ken Schmitt is on the county board.

Schmitt: Can you see it from here?

Contractor: We're on pay sand right there...

Like leaders in towns across the Midwest, he's trying to figure out how to regulate the new industry.

Contractor: We'll mine that out.

Schmitt: Yes, they're bringing jobs but there's also a cost. It's split neighborhoods and families. One faction wants to sell the family farm for sand and the other faction don't want to see grampa's farm dumped into an oil or gas well some place.

Wendy Loew wants the state to regulate the silica dust. She wants the county to limit the number of mines. She wants her neighbors to pay attention before it's too late. This is her husband David.

David Loew: What happens is they start checkerboarding an area. They'll get this neighbor and this neighbor. And pretty soon, you're in this area where there's sand mines all around you and it's like "Should we sell now while it's still worth something?"

Wendy Loew: We don't want to sell it and have someone use it for sand. And yet who do you sell it to that's not gonna do that? It's just a moral issue for us.

Wendy Lagesse: I think everyone should be able to do what they need to to make a living.

That's Wendy Lagesse, who's married to Sam, the farmer who started the sand rush here. Sam and Wendy say their social life has suffered and they no longer feel welcome in town.

Wendy Lagesse: Too many years of negative comments from too many people that you considered friends.

But when Sam walks down his driveway to work, he doesn't feel like a pariah -- more like a pioneer. Just a few feet from his house, the field stubble turns to sand. Sam knows his grandchildren will grow up counting dump trucks instead of dairy cows. But the way he sees it, he's at the hub of something great.

Sam Lagesse: All the jobs it creates for one thing. 'Cause the whole countryside used to be full of small farms like mine there and they're all going away, so we needed somethin'.

Many rural communities through the upper Midwest are bracing for the impact of the sand rush. Some counties are passing moratoriums so they have time to study the issue. It's hard for them to decide whether frack sand mines are saving the region or savaging it.

In Chippewa County, Wisc., this is Laurie Stern for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Laurie Stern is a freelance radio and television reporter in Minnesota.
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<grin>...the music segue outro!.../Neil Young guitar from...Cowgirl in the Sand

Congratulations on a very even handed story. My inclination is to be against (hey, I AM an NPR listener), but the reality as described here is much more complex.

Thanks for an informative article, Laurie. We've already taken all of the easy-to-get fuel (and minerals) out of the earth's crust. Mining, fracking and such are likely to get increasingly messy and toxic unless we install more ethical leaders in government and industry. I hope you keep shining a light on this topic.
Peggy at http://VermontWoodsStudios.com

Thanks for telling this story; people like me and my family, dealing with decisions being made now, that will impact them for years to come...

I had no idea this was such a divisive issue. Those poor people that stay and are left to suffer the health consequences years from now, when the profits have been taken and the land has been ravaged. If I lived there, I would vote for a moratorium on sand mining.

Thank you for the riveting story. It's strange that the sand mining issue is ripping apart the heartland of this country and there's virtually no mainstream media coverage of it. Please keep up the good work and bring us more on this topic, as well as more of this kind of insightful, balanced reporting. Laurie Stern is one of the best producers I've heard on public radio -- let's hear more from her.

Thank you for helping to get this story out into the world. I have concerns about the toll this mining is already taking on our landscape, water table, & rural communities, and fear that the sand "gold rush" is just getting underway. We here in Western WI are really struggling with this issue, and it feels like we are all alone out here, with little or no help coming from our state government in developing regulatory oversight for Frack Sand mining.

It's a complex story. Unfortunately, sand mining can leave a pretty big mess; not only through ravaged landscapes, but damage to roads, danger of silicosis from fugitive sand, depletion of aquifers, loss of property value for those in proximity of the mines. It is a major issue here on the west coast of Wisconsin, with literally dozens of mines opening within the past year or so. Thanks for shining a light on the topic, and please stop back again.

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