Thursday, January 3, 2013

New forms of wealth and division

As part of their periodic series called "Frac Sand Fever," the Star Tribune recently reported about community divisions stemming from frac sand development in western Wisconsin.

In a piece titled "Sand Mining Creates Wealth and Friction" (Dec. 2, 2012), reporter Curt Brown tells the story of Lou Ellen and Jim Frei, a couple in their late 60s who have lived in Blair, WI, in Trempealeau County, for 40 years, and who sold their dairy farm to a frac sand company in 2010 for half a million dollars. Here are some of the financial figures cited in the story:

  • Winn Bay Sand Co. paid the couple, along with three neighbors, $3850 per acre (for their 143 acres). They retained 10 years of rights to continue farming, logging, and hunting. 
  • Preferred Sands bought an 80 acre parcel in 2010 for $250,000 (or $3,125 an acre).
  • Brown reports on rumors of people receiving $10,000 an acre; he writes that the Texas oil and gas company Windsor Permian "has offered more than $15,000 an acre for a possible mining site near Red Wing."
From my perspective, it's interesting to examine how people try to make sense of the rapid social and economic changes associated with frac sand mining. Using a popular culture reference, one neighbor described the influx of frac sand wealth as a rural "rags to riches" story, and subtly frames the hills of rural Wisconsin as a nuisance: 
  • "It's like the Beverly Hillbillies: Who would have thought these hills we've been tipping our tractors over on all these years would become such a hot commodity?" - Lorna Tenneson

Other neighbors who have not benefited financially from frac sand development have been more critical, expressing concerns about the disruption of the landscape and potential health hazards. Brown's story quotes Amy and Jeff Swanson, both in their 30s, who live adjacent to the land sold by the Freis. 
  • "Our security is gone. They've had the opportunity to raise their family out here, they had the opportunity to live their life, but we're just starting out and we're extremely concerned about the potential health hazards." - Amy Swanson
  • "If we get a chance to get out of here and move, we're gone. This sand mining thing is starting to explode, and given a choice, nobody would live next to a sand mine." - Jeff Swanson
It's also interesting to note that the Frei's themselves were surprised by the reactions of some of their neighbors. In part, they did not expect their neighbors to resent their 'good fortune'. They convey an assumption that it is only rational for people to take advantage of a new source of wealth available to them, despite potential consequences for others. Brown writes: 
  • "When the sale went through, Jim expected his neighbors to say, 'Well, good going, Jim, good for you, you deserve it after all those lean years.'But Lou Ellen said, 'It's been war. I'll tell you, it was bad'."
Brown's piece also includes an insightful quote from Tom Woletz of the WI DNR, which underscores the unequal distribution of benefits and more general costs, while drawing on a vivid metaphor to portray a wounded landscape:
  • "This has become a very divisive local issue, with some people becoming quite wealthy in what used to be a tough rural farming area. It's certainly big money and a big change. And if you're not in, you're out. So you've got families and neighbors that aren't going to talk to each other for the rest of their lives and hillsides you looked over your whole life now cut wide open. Who could have imagined it?" - Tom Woletz, WI DNR
One might also interpret the image of hillsides "cut wide open" as a metaphor for the new forms of community conflict and division people are experiencing in relation to frac sand development. 

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