Meteor AK Knapp sand locator map

Wisconsin’s environmental protection agency has authorized a Georgia timber company to fill more than 16 acres of Monroe County wetlands in order to build a $65 million frac sand facility.

Meteor Timber, one of the largest private landowners in Wisconsin, has proposed building a processing and loading facility along Interstate 94 near the town of Millston to dry and ship frac sand the company will mine from a nearby site it acquired in a 2014 purchase of nearly 50,000 acres.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Friday granted the company a permit allowing it to fill the wetlands, including about 13 acres of “pristine” and increasingly rare hardwood swamp.

“We are pleased that the DNR has approved our wetland permit, and we look forward to continuing to work with the agency as the regulatory process progresses,” project manager Chris Mathis said in a written statement to the Tribune. “Our project will protect more than 40 acres of wetland for every one impacted, making it one of the largest wetland preservation and restoration efforts in Wisconsin history.”

Meteor must still receive permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before filling any wetlands. The company must also apply for permits allowing incidental loss of threatened and endangered species during construction.

The proposal drew criticism at an April public hearing on the permit and was officially opposed by the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Midwest Environmental Advocates called the scope of the wetland destruction “massive” in comparison to the total of 26 acres the DNR has allowed frac sand mining companies to fill since 2008.

“The permit reflects a very careful review and investigation by DNR staff,” said MEA staff attorney Sarah Geers. “It also reflects the extraordinary damage that this wetland fill will do to a sensitive and imperiled resource.”

After the proposal first received media attention, Meteor proposed to restore and preserve more than 640 acres of other land — including more than 296 acres of existing wetlands.

“Our company knows that sustainability is an important part of operating responsibly,” Mathis said. “We have worked hard to go above and beyond other projects by developing a historic plan to permanently preserve and restore high-quality wetlands on more than 600 acres. This effort merits support from those who want to see growth, economic development and preserve the environment – because our project accomplishes all three.”

However, the DNR determined those mitigation efforts “are not likely to fully compensate” for what it calls “permanent and irreversible” secondary impacts from activity on the site and may not compensate for the direct loss of 13.4 acres of “exceptional quality” white pine and red maple swamp, which is considered an imperiled habitat.

The agency also said the permit approval “may lead to increased applications to fill rare, sensitive and valuable wetland plant communities.”

Geers said those and other findings bring into question whether the project can be legally approved under state and federal law.

Both regulators and opponents have questioned the project’s economic viability, given the precipitous drop in demand for sand since domestic fracking peaked in 2014.

But an economic analysis prepared by a Pennsylvania consultant says because the group could efficiently send entire trains of its sand reserves directly to oil fields in Texas that have become some of the nation’s most productive. The company expects to ship about 1.5 million tons of processed sand each year using the adjacent Union Pacific rail line.

Meteor has said it cannot find another location to accommodate such a large plant along the UP rail line.

The company also said permitting its project is the only way to prevent much of the 752-acre site from being clearcut.

About three quarters of the land is owned by the A&K Alexander Cranberry Co., which was cited in 2013 by the Environmental Protection Agency for illegally filling 5.6 acres of wetlands. As part of the penalty, the EPA required A&K to restore 2.2 acres of the filled wetlands and to get an “after-the-fact” permit for another 3.63 acres.

According to documents filed in support of the application, A&K managing partner Marty Alexander took out a one-year loan in August for $321,470 to settle the case. In a letter to Meteor, Alexander said if the sale does not go through logging would be his only way to avoid foreclosure.

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Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things. Call him at 608-791-8217.

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