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Sand rush splits a community

Laurie Stern Jan 27, 2012

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.

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