Sand has become a valuable – and deeply divisive – commodity in the upper Midwest. Hydraulic fracturing, a method of extraction also known as fracking that has boosted oil and natural gas production across the United States, requires sand, and there's plenty of it here.
And so in dozens of small towns and rural townships in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and especially Wisconsin, the demand for frac sand, as it's called, has brought a surge of new mining activity. Scores of companies have poured in, eager to take advantage of the thick sandstone that underlies the bluffs and ridges of the region's picturesque river country.
The sand rush has created jobs and enriched landowners, but it also has divided neighbors, strained local governments, and set off fierce debates over its benefits and its costs to the land, public health, and quality of life.
"I don't think we were surprised that they found ways to extract it," says John Kimmel, the mayor of Arcadia, a town of 3,000 residents in Wisconsin's Trempealeau County. "I think we were surprised at the effect it's had on the community – and on how many mines have just started to pop up all over."