Unframing Strib’s envy narrative: Sand mining creates wealth and friction and convenient fiction


In Sunday’s Star Tribune, general assignment reporter Curt Brown weaves a colorful narrative of envy in Sand mining creates wealth and friction (what appears to be his first frac sand mining story), while failing to note that neighbors of a farm couple who collected $550,000 for their place might have more powerful reasons not to wave when they pass by.

There’s more to this story than the green-eyed monster angle Brown selected.

The neighbors spell out those other reasons not to wave in the minutes from a June 9, 2010 Trempealeau County Environment and Land Use Committee meeting.

Curiously, envy never seem to be on the list of the factor mentioned in their public testimony.

In his report, Brown doesn’t hint at information that reveals the payment to the farm couple is nickel-and-dime stuff in the frac sand drama playing out in Wisconsin. Instead, that half-million dollar check is a grain in the unit train hauling what Winn Bay Sand got when they sold out to one of the largest frac sand mining corporations in North America in January: $200 million.

Brown’s usually better than this: his look back at Little Crow in August as part of the 150 anniversary of the 1862 US Dakota War is superlative. This piece isn’t.

Brown: Half-millionaires get “envious looks”

In Sand mining creates wealth and friction, Brown sets up a tale of poor dirt farmers suddenly coming into wealth, and with that wealth, “envious glares” from their former neighbors:

Lou Ellen and Jim Frei spent 40 years as hardscrabble dairy farmers, cussing the sandy soil that gave them and their tractor such fits.

Today they are finally breathing easy, thanks to that same gritty land. They just moved into a new one-story house on Sjuggerud Coulee Road. Now they don’t have to worry about climbing their old farmhouse stairs on knees made sore by milking cows.

Once so poor they couldn’t afford new shoes when their daughter started school, they now have more than $550,000 in the bank.

“We’ve even got a Jacuzzi tub now,” said Jim, 66, chuckling about their sudden change of fortune. . . .

While they count themselves fortunate, the Freis acknowledge some heartache. They get envious glares from neighbors who were hay-baling partners for years. Some neighbors won’t wave anymore as they pass on country roads.

“This has become a very divisive local issue, with some people becoming quite wealthy in what used to be a tough rural farming area,” said Tom Woletz, who tracks frac sand mines for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s certainly big money and a big change,” he added. “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?”

And Brown reports that the couple just didn’t anticipate this resentment from their neighbors:

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.”

There’s a paragraph mentioning objections and one family on a small plot next door is interviewed:

Amy and Jeff Swanson have lived on 12 acres adjacent to the Freis’ old place for seven years, raising 10-year-old Rayna and 8-year-old Jaren. They grow some crops and run landscaping, hauling, can-recycling and dog-breeding businesses. Unlike the Freis, says Amy, “our security is gone.

It’s clear Brown is sympathetic to the older couple. That’s not necessarily bad journalism, but the rest of what happened in Blair with Winn Bay Sand is a story–or so a search of Nexis’s All News database tells us–that the Star Tribune has never told.

And what’s left out is important.

Did Brown go into the public record? We did, after a suggestion from FireDogLake and Mercury Rising’s Phoenix Woman, and we’ve have found some other equally compelling stories.

Those stories certainly are not the tales the flacks from WISC would bring up in pitching how to cover sand mining–but then, we don’t know if one from the industrial sands pr group reached out and touched Brown.

From the record: beekeepers, dairy farmers and parents speak

Since Brown does characterize the neighbors’ looks as “envious glares,” Bluestem will go into what the neigthbors said when they heard about the Larkin Valley project. Once we read the testimony, we came to believe that there’s a lot more to the former neighbors’ dirty looks than mere envy.

Brown reports that the Freis sold the land in 2010 and that “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 even before the sale went through, the neighbors objected, so the half-millionaire is fudging a bit on the surprise he recalls for Brown. The Blair Press–Taylor reported on December 24, 2009, in Group forms to oppose sand mine in Larkin Valley:

Residents of Larkin Valley, Snake Coulee, and Schansberg Road, and the City of Blair met to form a formal opposition group to the proposed “Larkin Valley Project”, a silica sand mine operation proposed by a Canadian firm called Winn Bay Sand Limited Partnership.

Winn Bay has proposed a silica sand mine about a half-mile northwest of Blair, north of Schansberg Road. . ..

It’s quite likely that the deals were in place by the end of December, but material on the group’s website doesn’t really suggest envy. But then, Brown only mentions hearings and petitions in Wisconsin in very general terms. Readers aren’t told the name of the opposition group that was formed: The Larkin Valley No Winn Project, though we’re told about “envious glares.”

Take a look at some of the statements in the June 9, 2010 Environment and Land Use Committee minutes. According to the conditional use permit, Winn Bay Sand was not yet the owner of the property:

Public Hearing – Conditional Use Permit – Non-metallic Mining – Jonas and Katherine Neuenschwander, James and Lou Ellen Frei, Phineas R. Schrock and Carl and Lucy Axness, Property Owners, Blair, WI and Winn Bay Sand, LP Sand, LP Operator, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada – Town of Preston.

Who are the other landowners? Carl Axness isn’t a poor dirt farmer; he’s the chairman of the local community bank. Phineas Schrock is a farmer and truck driver. The Neuenschwanders are farmers who run a wood working shop.

Brown writes that the Freis sold their cows “several years ago” but the last dairy program payment that they received, according to information in the EWG farm subsidies database was 1995, when they received $296 in a milk marketing program. Overall, the farmer received $73,573 in federal farm subsidies between 1995 and 2011, largely from conservation programs, or around $4598 per year.

There’s more to it than what Brown shares:

Frac sand opponents have packed meeting halls and circulated petitions, worrying about increased dust getting into their lungs, heightened truck traffic pummeling their roads and all that water the mines would suck from the aquifers.

Here’s some of what the neighbors said:

Judt Haase-Hardie – Testify in opposition – Haase-Hardie lives on Schansberg Road with husband, Arden and three daughters. Their farm was purchased by Don and Doris Hardie (Arden’s parents) in March of 1941 and in those 68 years a way of life has been established and currently they are an organic dairy farm. Their seventeen year old house is in close proximity to the railroad crossing which is a concern. They presently farm 8.3 acres of one of the farms included in this proposal; therefore they would be losing that land. She felt it doesn’t take a sand mine to improve our local economy, in this area it takes friends of rural life – people who intentionally purchase items and services of our local community. People who pray, play and work together. She questions, do we want our young people to return home to the farmland or their homestead? On their neighborhood road alone, they have several friends and their own two daughters who are active on the family farms. It used to be considered that farming was solely a “man’s world” and that has really never been true as farming as been a family role but many times the women have not been given credit for what they have done. We have been hearing that the land will be reclaimed and it will become better Ag land after the mining is over with. Who is going to want to buy our organic beef after it has been raised on reclaimed mining land after a sand mine that has flocculant in the soil. It is her opinion that you can never, ever return the land to its original form,

Ag land can never be made better than what God has given. She has attended all the meetings and a comment was made by a Winn Bay Sand, LP representative, at the initial public meeting, that if the community doesn’t want us here, we will not come. Haase-Hardie questioned how many petitions, how many more signs does Winn Bay Sand, LP need to indicate that we do not want a sand mine in our neighborhood. Haase-Hardie suggested the matter be tabled so that more information can be sought out and her prayer for the Committee – wisdom of God be always with you at work in you.

Shannon Leer – Registered to testify in opposition – Leer lives on Larkin Valley Road and is a small business owner. He is a beekeeper. Leer was told specifically by William Vachon that his business would be affected. Leer stated that Harold Derkson stated it would be best to mitigate with everyone so that they are happy. Leer added there has been no mitigation other than “we’re not interested”. Leer leases 65 acres of land for recreation for himself and his family, which is adjacent to the north property line of where the processing center will be. The conveyor that Winn Bay Sand, LP will put in for the movement of the sand is going to eliminate the movement of the wildlife. The reason that Leer leases the land is for the wildlife movement and he feels that will be eliminated if the mine is allowed.

Tracey Leer – Registered to testify in opposition – Leer is not opposed to mining. Leer is opposed to a mine coming within 480 yards of her home and the other homes that are in area. Everyone has children. Leers’ children are eight and eleven and they rides horses. What is going to happen when blasting occurs? How will blasting feel on horse’s feet? Horses can go crazy at any little difference. Yes, a person can get injured walking across the street but that is a responsibility we take upon ourselves. With this situation it doesn’t feel like we’re being thought of as much because Winn Bay Sand, LP has made it feel like they are coming in regardless. Jamie Puent and Bill Vachon had a meeting with landowners and Bill Vachon told Leers’ that they would be negatively impacted. Shannon Leer runs his bee business from their home because it is just like any other farming and a big portion of the bee business is spent in the bee yard. Their daughters are also able to spend time in the bee yard, not only to learn the business for the future, but it is good family time. When James Kalny said that their mission statement had integrity, Leer didn’t find it very responsible for them to come into an area and affect so many families. They are not looking at the full picture. They are looking at the mining industry and they want it and they want to start making money right now. Leer stated that Jamie Puent had said that Winn Bay Sand, LP would run numbers to help buy Leer’s house. Two weeks later, Leer stated Puent had stated Winn Bay Sand, LP was not interested whatsoever in buying their house whether Leers are affected or not. On Winn Bay Sand, LP’s slide presentation, Leers were not one of the businesses that were listed as being negatively impacted. Leer continued that Winn Bay Sand, LP knows Leers’ business will be negatively impacted and Winn Bay Sand, LP does not want to compensate for that. Winn Bay Sand, LP suggested that Leers take their bees and move miles down the road which will impact their family quality time. If the mine comes in and does not compensate Leers for what they are losing, what is the world coming to. Leers are here for the duration and will lose their livelihood for the mining people coming in for twenty years and then leaving. Leer expressed her wish that this issue be tabled for now.

Diane Carlson – Registered to testify in opposition. Carlson and her husband have been faced with a unique situation. They own property along Schansberg Road that is located directly across the road from the rail spur site. Winn Bay Sand, LP has respectfully met with the Carlson’s’ and have acknowledged that the Carlson’s will be negatively impacted. Winn Bay Sand, LP has offered them an “Option to Purchase” on their property. Carlson stated that doesn’t mean that they feel they have been placed in a win/win situation….

Cathy Buresh – Registered to testify in opposition – It has been a very difficult past few days trying to get information together as we are facing a giant, but David is on our side. Buresh read a letter that she submitted on May 5th to the Township of Preston. The proposed silica sand mine in Larkin Valley is of great concern to my family. Buresh relocated to beautiful, pastoral Trempealeau County from the suburbs of Milwaukee for the express purpose of raising our family in the serene countryside of Blair. It is most disturbing to hear of the Winn Bay Sand, LP limited partnership vigorous attempt to begin mining within a mile of their home. The detrimental affects of a mining venture within proximity of family, friends and neighbors pose very serious health risks. Cumulative impacts from dust and diesel fumes and fugitive dust from multiple sources degrade air quality. Traffic congestion, safety hazards and public nuisances such as noise and chronic dusting issues and loss of aesthetic views are a very few of the substantial losses our community will suffer. Buresh shares the consternation of her neighbors with regard in which Winn Bay Sand, LP is pressing forward with this proposal and the lack of support and unbiased protection apparent in the editorials of our local newspaper. It is with trepidation that Buresh must share this information so that you may consider what is in the best interest of the people Buresh is a wife and mother of ten children, a registered nurse and she has lived in Larkin Valley, Town of Preston for the past 18 years. . . .

Sharon L. Sweno – Registered in opposition but not testify. The Committee granted Sweno the opportunity to comment. Sweno has health issues and the silica mine could affect her. The mine will affect her home, friends and her family. Sweno spends time on the family farm. Sweno doesn’t want the mine. Why do the people that don’t want the mine seem to be fighting a battle that they probably won’t win? Sweno stated that everything the people have said here is true. It is possible that the people that will be affected by the sale of their land are thinking more of what they will be getting in money rather than the people who are being affected by the mine. Are these people planning to move out because they sold their land? It is a moral issue also.

Andrew Wengerd – Registered to testify in opposition. Wengerd’s property line and buildings are about 900 feet from the proposed Winn Bay Sand, LP property. Wengerd’s concern is that he does adult/family home care on his property and he has a ward of the state living in his home that is an epileptic and autistic. People talk about how the air pressure, etc. might affect this person if the mine goes in. Wengerd has lived on this property for 18 years and cannot afford to relocate. Wengerd is concerned.

Calvin Lebakken – Registered to testify in opposition. Lebakken thanked the Committee for the opportunity to speak. Lebakken and his wife have owned and operated an accounting business in the rural Blair area for the last 21 years. Lebakken’s home and business are located right next to the area of the proposed mine. Lebakken’s have made every attempt to remain neutral regarding this project, but now it is vital to stand up for their son’s well being. Their son is a very active, vital, 10 year old with a zest for life. He suffers from low muscle tone . The low muscle tone prevents him from normal walking and speaking and in addition he also has hyper-sensitive hearing. A great example of this is when the train blows its horn in Whitehall, 7 miles away, he can sense that. Their son knows that within 15 minutes that train will pass Lebakken’s house. At this point, they hold their hands over their son’s ears to help cut down the extreme sound that the whistle has at the crossing near their home. Currently, the train travels past their house two times per day. The mining plan talks of three railroad spurs going in roughly ¾ of a mile from their house. Winn Bay Sand, LP is looking at loading 1 car every 20 minutes and have the cars in groups of 10. This extra noise could affect their son. Currently, their son does sleep thru the train at night 95% of the time. With the new proposed train activity the time of hooking and unhooking could increase from 10-15 minutes to 45 minutes to an hour. Is the movement during the day/night going to be an all day process? Lebakken inquired about the dynamite blasting? It going to be where it startles him too much? Lebakkens are not sure how far their son can hear, but he might possibly hear the grinding over the hill. Lebakken suggested perhaps the decision could be tabled to do more research.

Dan Lee – Registered to testify in opposition. Lee also has two letters from other people to read. The first letter is from Audrey Lee. Audrey Lee is 94 years old and lives at Grandview Health Care Center in Blair. A. Lee moved to the Pleasantville area in 1949 and raised 6 children, was a dairy wife and a retired elementary school teacher. A. Lee is concerned about the negative health effects from this sand mine proposal. She has breathing problems and is on oxygen. Adding any air pollutants would adversely affect her health. Most, if not all, of the residents at Grandview have breathing and/or heart problems and would also suffer from this silica dust. Grandview is down wind one mile from this proposed site. A. Lee urged the Committee to consider the most vulnerable of residents at this time

Dan Lee was also asked to read a letter submitted by Albert Przybylla, Sr. Przybylla lives across the road from the proposed mine site entrance. Przybylla was told by mine representatives that the current access road across from his driveway will be the worker’s entrance. Przybylla bought the place in 1948 and currently farms 392 acres with his two sons. Przybylla is against this proposal for the following reasons: Water Quality – a few years Ago AMPI started to spread whey on the property that is now proposed to be a mining site. Not long after that he started to see brown flakes of matter in his water. Przybylla contacted AMPI and they stopped immediately. Not long after that the brown flakes went away. Przybylla feels this mine will cause a serious water quality and health risk. Noise , dust, light pollution – Przybylla is only a quarter of a mile from the site. That distance is the same as three city blocks. The mine site is also higher in elevation and flanked by rolling hills. This will channel all noise, dust and lights right to his operation and home. Blasting will not be good to the home foundations, water wells and various animals. Traffic increase – often Przybylla is on Snake Coulee and Larkin Valley road with farm machinery. . . .

Amy Swanson – Swanson stated this has been a really emotional issue for all involved. As adjoining property owners and on behalf of her husband and two children, one of which has asthma, she asked the Committee to consider that inhalable crystalline silica is not currently regulated by the DNR. This means that her family and her neighbors have no protection. Since the DNR is currently in the process of working on this study, Swanson asked that the Committee please not allow a mine of this nature, this one
or others, without those standards and a way to enforce those standards in place.

Other than that, perhaps it’s just envy for neighbors becoming half-millionaires.

Winn Bay Sand passes go, collects $200 million

Nor do we learn from Brown about what Winn Sands got for its assets when it sold out in early January to Preferred Sands:

Preferred Sands has acquired substantially all the assets of Winn Bay Sand, including mining locations in Blair, Wisconsin and Hanson Lake, Saskatchewan, for an excess of $200 million. Preferred is now the largest frac sand producer in Canada and one of the top three in the U.S.

The acquisition will benefit Preferred Sands’ customers by allowing the company to increase its current capacity. Both the Blair and Hanson Lake locations are in close proximity to existing Preferred Sands operations. The access to rail in both locations will streamline and shorten the length of time for transport.

As a part of this acquisition, Preferred Sands has offered employment to the existing 110 Winn Bay Sand employees and will take over supply of Winn Bay Sand’s current customers. Preferred Sands will expand both of the newly acquired plants in 2012 further to further increase capacity.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in Radnor firm buys frack-sand operation for $200M :

Preferred Sands did not disclose how it will finance the deal. Mergers & Acquisitions Journal reported in November that the company was seeking a $430 million senior secured credit facility to pay for an acquisition, buy out minority investors, and refinance existing debt.

Later in January, the suburban Philadelphia company issued a press release, Preferred Sands Secures $376 Million Loan for Acquisition and Capacity Expansion Projects that noted the sources of the financing:

Preferred Sands recently acquired Winn Bay Sand in conjunction with a $376 million debt offering. The debt offering was secured through J.P. Morgan and the transaction was led and managed by Barclays Capital and KeyBanc Capital Markets. The transaction was finalized on December 15, 2011.

Annexation: Goodbye, good neighbor policy

Brown mentions in passing that an annexation took away some of the conditions that mitigated some of the worst aspects of mining that the neighbors would face, but he doesn’t tell readers much of that story, either, so intent is he on spinning the tale of his chump-change Jed Clampett:

Jeff Swanson, 38, said they were ready to live with the mine under the original rules that shut down operations at 8 p.m. and left a ridge line of trees as a buffer. After the mine was recently annexed to a nearby town, many of those safeguards are gone.

What’s that all about? Winona Radio reported in August’s Sand Mine Annexation Reversed:

Seeing dollars signs in increased property tax revenue, the Blair City Council recently reversed its decision on preventing the annexation of a sand mine operation into the city.

The Trempealeau County Times reports the second time around the vote was 4 to 1, with one abstention, to allow the annexation of the Preferred Sands Mining operation into the city. The council had voted 3 to 2 in early July, with one abstention, against allowing the annexation.

What swayed their minds this time, according to the paper, was an additional almost $191,000 in property tax revenue the operation would provide to the city. The city’s planning commission must now finalize guidelines for a conditional use permit before the annexation becomes official.

And so the safeguards from the original CUP approved for a different corporation by a different unit of government vanished.

But let’s call those looks on the neighbors’ faces “envious glares,” and chalk failure to wave up to a green-eyed monster.