Meteor Timber didn’t have any friends at a public hearing in Tomah Tuesday.
None of the 18 people who testified during a Department of Natural Resources hearing spoke in favor of the Georgia timber company’s permit application to fill 16.4 acres of wetland to construct a sand processing and loading facility.
Opposition ranged from hostility to hydraulic fracturing for extracting oil and natural gas to concerns about disrupting the peace and quiet of the rural countryside.
“We should stop all permitting to all stages of frac sand mining until there are appropriate independent studies that are completed and reviewed,” said Janice Kenyon of rural Ontario.
The DNR has tentatively approved the permit, which includes filling 13 acres of “pristine” hardwood swamp. Meteor plans to dismantle two cranberry operations on the 752-acre property, eliminate four impoundments and restore 2,000 feet of stream. Meteor has also proposed to preserve 640 acres of other “high-quality wetlands” and restore 58 acres at other sites.
However, Sara Geers, staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, expressed skepticism of Meteor’s restoration plans and said the wetland Meteor wants to fill is “rare in Wisconsin and hard to replace once it’s destroyed.”
Geers also doubted whether restoration promises can be trusted given the “boom-and-bust” nature of the sand mining and energy industries.
David Epstein, president of Millston Investors Ltd., said the facility threatens neighboring landowners in the Jackson County town of Millston and nearby Lee Lake, a 30-acre impoundment with a public swimming beach and several lakefront houses. A local sportsman’s club stocks the lake with trout.
“There are many valuable homes with Lee Lake frontage in the immediate area with private wells sourced by shallow aquifers,” he said. “We fear these domestic water systems ... might be adversely affected by Meteor’s upstream wetlands actions.”
Greg Eirschele said Unimin’s sand mining facility in Tunnel City has already transformed the local landscape.
“The hills are disappearing,” Eirschele said. “They’re literally shipping them away.”
Kim Rudolph, who lives in southern Jackson County, worried about the facility’s impact on his property value.
“I want to know if the water table goes down, what is going to happen?” he said. “If my property value drops, are they going to reimburse me for that?”
A Trempealeau County homeowner said promises from frac sand companies to be good neighbors can’t be trusted. Mike Sylla, who lives with his wife and two children in the town of Lincoln, blames a neighboring Hi-Crush sand mine for ruining his water supply.
Sylla held up two jars of brown water that he said came from his well. He said his family must buy all its water from somewhere else.
“I’m bringing this sample because it does and can happen,” Sylla said. “What are we going to drink in the years to come? We won’t have any water.”
He said sand mines “might bring a few jobs to the area, but what kind of jobs will there be when there’s no water in the area?”
Kenyon raised the specter of silicosis, which she said is caused by silica particles that escape into the air from sand mining.
“I’m a doctor, and I can speak to the health risks of this endeavor,” she said. “The little pieces of silica are like needles − they are like little swords. They get into the lung tissue, and they do not disappear. There is no known cure for this.”
Meteor issued a statement shortly after the hearing. It said the project is a $65 million investment that will create nearly 100 jobs.
“We are pleased to see the regulatory process continue to move forward, and we welcome public input on our plans,” said project manager Chris Mathis. “Our company knows that sustainability is an important part of operating responsibly. That is why we have gone above and beyond other projects by developing a historic plan to permanently preserve and restore high-quality wetland on more than 600 acres.
“This effort merits support from those who want to see growth and economic development and those who want to preserve the environment because our project does both.”
Both the DNR and Army Corps of Engineers have questioned the project’s economic viability, given the precipitous drop in demand for sand since domestic fracking peaked in 2014.
But in spite of a recent industry slump, Meteor is in a unique position to have a profitable mining operation, according to an economic analysis prepared by a Pennsylvania consulting firm. That’s because the group owns land with large reserves of fine sands that are now in demand and if allowed to move forward would be able to load entire trains and put them onto the Union Pacific system, which would provide a direct link to Texas oil fields.
Meteor has said it cannot find another location to accommodate such a large plant along the UP rail line.
The company has 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.
Katie Graves of Sparta said opponents will continue to fight the project even if the DNR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approve the permit.
“Why are we allowing corporations to harm us, to pollute us, to poison us?” she said. “It’s past time for us to take a stand for our communities, our children, our grandchildren and this planetary ecosystem we’re all a part of.”
The public can submit written comments through April 28.
Chris Hubbuch of the La Crosse Tribune contributed to this report.