A judge has rescinded a permit for a Georgia timber company to build a frac sand plant in Monroe County wetlands.
In a ruling issued Friday, administrative law Judge Eric Defort concludes the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources didn’t have information required by state law when it issued a permit allowing Meteor Timber to fill 16.25 acres of wetlands for the proposed $70 million processing and loading facility near Millston.
Defort reversed the permit, which had been challenged by the Ho-Chunk Nation and Clean Wisconsin, who argued that destroying the “pristine” forested wetlands — home to several rare and endangered species — would open the door to the destruction of more rare wetlands.
“This is a significant victory for the people of Wisconsin, our pristine wetlands, and the integrity of our environmental laws,” the groups said in a joint statement released Friday. “The decision confirms that DNR did not follow the permitting process required by state law. This decision reinforces DNR’s duty to protect our natural resources for the public. We will continue to defend the public’s right to protection of our natural resources in the legislative, agency, and judicial arenas.”
Several former DNR employees, including former Secretary George Meyer, testified against the project during a five-day hearing in March, saying the agency granted the permit in spite of staff findings and a long list of unanswered questions.
“It is abundantly clear that the DNR did not have the necessary information to assess the net positive or negative environmental impact of the proposed project at the time that it issued the permits, as required by the statute,” Defort wrote in his decision.
“Notably, the DNR explicitly announced in both versions of the permit that it lacked information that the DNR deemed ‘necessary’ for it to consider the applicant’s proposals with respect to the net positive or negative environmental impact.”
Meteor has not said whether it will appeal the decision in circuit court.
Meteor spokesman Chris Mathis issued a statement through the company’s attorney saying while he respects the decision, “we at Meteor Timber disagree and do believe that the economic and environmental benefits of this project merit further discussion and thought. We understand that this process is a lengthy one, with much deliberation, and we will continue to work toward ensuring that this project can benefit the local communities that will be impacted.”
DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the agency was reviewing the decision “to determine what our next steps might be.”
Meteor had proposed to restore and preserve more than 640 acres of other land near the the 752-acre site, which would serve two nearby mines on land the company acquired in 2014 when it purchased nearly 50,000 acres of Wisconsin forest.
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.
Meteor has said the project was the only way to prevent much of the site from being clear cut by the current owner, who needs money to pay off fines for previous wetland violations.
Republican lawmakers in the state Assembly twice this spring passed legislation that would have allowed Meteor to proceed with the project even while the appeal was pending. Both bills died when the Senate declined to take them up.
Nathan Conrad, spokesman for the pro-mining Natural Resources Development Association, said he expects Meteor “will continue to work toward a positive result for this much-needed project.”
“The environmental and economic benefits that could be reaped are immense, and the broad support from the local community and elected officials showcases the need for this $75 million investment in Wisconsin’s future,” Conrad said in a statement. “The United States Army Corps of Engineers has approved this project, and with that in mind, we expect future decision makers will see all sides of the issue and come to the right conclusion.”