Rifts Emerge Amid 'Frac Sand' Rush In Wisconsin

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Western Wisconsin counties bordering the Mississippi River have a unique geography: steep bluffs with layers and layers of silica sand. The sand is extremely valuable because it's strong enough to prop open underground veins in shale fields so oil and natural gas can be released. It's called "frac sand," and Wisconsin appears to have more of it than any other state. But the hills are private property, so sand mining companies have to negotiate with local farmers — not all of whom are on board.


In this country, there's an ingredient that's key to the success of new oil and gas technologies. That crucial ingredient is ordinary and plentiful, but only found in a few places and obtaining it almost always causes friction.

From Wisconsin, Laurie Sterns dent us this report.

LAURIE STERN, BYLINE: There's a unique geography here in the western Wisconsin counties bordering the Mississippi River: steep bluffs with layers and layers of silica sand. The sand is now extremely valuable because it's strong enough to prop open the underground veins in shale fields so that oil and natural gas can be released. It's called frac sand, and Wisconsin appears to have more of it than any other state. Now the sand rush is on. These hills are private property, so sand mining companies have to negotiate with local farmers.

Farmers like Dennis Bork, a rugged man in his early 50s.

DENNIS BORK: Just roll it between your fingers. It just feels like salt grains. Once that gets washed out that's all that's left is just those granules, those round and hard, and you can kind of see 'em there on my finger.

STERN: Wisconsin fill sand sells for about $6 a ton. This sand is worth much, much more about 30 times more - close to $200 a ton.

BORK: I'm proud and excited to be one of them that was accepted that has the product that they're looking for.

STERN: Bork and six adjoining farmers agreed to sell their sand to a new company called Glacier Sands. Texan Ike Thomas is one of the owners of Glacier Sands.

IKE THOMAS: There are several companies going after the sand, there's no doubt. There is quite a bit of competition out there.

STERN: On this sweltering summer evening, Thomas is part of a caravan driving out to inspect one of his mine sites. Two years ago, there were only five frac-sand mines in Wisconsin. Now there are at least 64, with dozens of permits pending.

There's gold in them thar hills.

THOMAS: There you go. Yes. That's exactly right.


STERN: Ike Thomas joins a knot of sweaty men on a scrubby hill overlooking a bean field. He sticks out in his dress shirt and cowboy hat, but he's among friends here.

Local landowners wear bright green T-shirts that say Glacier Sands on the front and sand = jobs on the back. The three guys from the county who will vote on the permit have questions for Tom Hubbard, a local engineer whose company would build the sand mine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're talking about taking these hills down about half as high as they are right now then?

TOM HUBBARD: Probably somewhere around in there I'd say, yeah.

STERN: Taking the hills down works for farmers like Dennis Bork. Back on his farm, he'll be able to grow corn where he can't now. Glacier Sands is promising to reclaim his hills.

BORK: My hills are going to be easier to farm when this is done with because they're going to be more of a level terrain that what they are now.

STERN: If Bork's deal goes through, the sand will be conveyered from the six neighbor farms to his place, where it will be washed and hauled by truck to a drying plant 15 miles away. It then goes by train to shale fields all over the country. It will make these already prosperous farmers far richer. But it's causing big problems in the community, including with Dennis Bork's next-door neighbor.

BORK: We're neighbors. We need to find a common ground so we can continue to be neighbors.

NETTIE ROSENOW: I don't want to talk to him. I have nothing to say to him. Nothing.

STERN: That's Nettie Rosenow. She raises 500 dairy cows here, and runs a commercial compost operation. The farm has been in her husband's family for six generations.

ROSENOW: It's beautiful here, and we don't understand why people want to turn it into an industrial park. And we will have traffic and noise and sand and destroy everything about why we live here.

STERN: If Glacier Sands gets its permits, hundreds of sand trucks a day would pass right by Rosenow's house. Sand pits would surround her property. She doesn't believe the bluffs can be rebuilt. Rosenow is part of an increasingly vocal opposition that plans to fight the mines here every step of the way.

ROSENOW: They couldn't put a strip joint right out here if they wanted to. Nobody would agree to that. This is worse.

STERN: Tens of thousands of acres in West-Central Wisconsin have already received permits to mine frac sand. Most came though after a fight. The state says sand mining brings much-needed jobs and revenue.

While Dennis Bork says he should be free to do as he pleases on his land, Nettie Rosenow says the law should uphold what she feels is the greater good. That all-American clash is as old as these hills, but the outcome of this fight may change the landscape here forever.

For NPR News, I'm Laurie Stern.

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