The road to the Swenson household in Jackson County runs like so many roads in western Wisconsin. It crosses a cornfield, then cozies up to the base of a ridge and follows the contour of the land. Just around the corner, amid tall pines, the Swensons' modest split-level home nestles alongside a splendid pinnacle of sandstone.
Through the Swensons' front door, a bank of windows gives a commanding view of the valley. Just a few years ago, it was a classic rural landscape, punctuated by a few rooflines, fields, and some forest on the next ridge. Now the vista is dominated by an industrial sand mine, dismembering that same ridge.
Duane Swenson picks up a map of the township and points out the tract, clearly highlighted in pink. The color is sun-faded, so it takes a moment to register just how much pink there is in Curran township: more than a third is occupied by active or planned frac sand mines.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, pumps a cocktail of water and chemicals into shale formations deep underground. The pressure creates microfractures in the rock, releasing oil and natural gas. Sand is a critical ingredient, a proppant added to the mixture to "prop" open the cracks. The sand must be the right size, shape, and strength.
Fracking has upended the U.S. energy economy and raises unsettling environmental questions. While there is no fracking in Wisconsin, the state's western counties provide much of the sand used in the process. Between 2007 and 2015, a sand rush established 101 active and permitted mines and dozens of processing and rail facilities. State data lists ninety-two active and thirty-two inactive facilities, and four undergoing reclamation. Nearly half are in just three counties: Trempealeau, Barron, and Jackson.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has allowed frac sand mining to proceed under rules governing common sand and gravel pits: Owners just need a perfunctory air permit and an approved reclamation plan.
The low regulatory bar also minimizes the need for public notices.
"We didn't know a thing about this--absolutely quiet--until the day before the reclamation permit public hearing" says Swenson. Within months, the land was denuded. Then came the blasting, the dust, and a 24/7 industrial soundtrack. His wife, Ruth--a lifelong swimmer and physical education instructor--can't breathe like she used to.
Swenson heads across his backyard, and up the pinnacle at the corner of his property. It's a short, steep climb over sandy soil. Waiting at the top is...