TOMAH, Wis. — There was little public support Friday for a Georgia timber company’s plans to fill wetlands in order to build a $65 million frac sand plant in Monroe County even as the contested project received federal approval.
Half a dozen people spoke against the project at a public hearing on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ proposal to amend a permit allowing Meteor Timber to fill 16¼ acres of wetlands for its sand processing and loading facility in the town of Millston, which environmentalists call “massive” wetland destruction.
The original permit, issued in May, included 59 conditions, including detailed information on the company’s plans to create new wetlands to compensate for those being destroyed. Meteor has since submitted new information and asked the DNR to modify the permit.
DNR attorney Cheryl Heilman said the agency has made a tentative decision to approve the changes, although it has not published a draft of the modified permit or a list of the conditions that have been met.
The Army Corps of Engineers issued Meteor a federal wetland permit Friday, though the agency has not released a public copy.
Opponents of the project argued the permit should not have been granted in the first place.
“Meteor Timber was not and is not entitled to a wetland permit,” said Kim Wright, executive director for Midwest Environmental Advocates, which is petitioning to join a legal challenge to the permit. “Now it’s too late. Meteor Timber cannot shore up an inadequate permit application by submitting info after the permit was issued.”
Evan Feinauer, a staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin, said his group “has serious concerns about the process this permit has gone through.”
Some residents questioned whether the wetlands could truly be replaced.
“I don’t want to go down this road and hear someone say, ‘Dan, we’re sorry,’ ” said Millston town Chairman Dan Smrekar. “The DNR has a responsibility. They’re supposed to protect and look out for their constituents.”
Black River Falls cranberry farmer Jerry Fuerstenberg was the only one of about 30 people at Friday’s hearing who spoke in favor of the project, arguing that the government should not have authority over what property owners do with their land.
“Pretty soon it’s going to be oak trees,” Fuerstenberg said.
Wetlands are a key component of the ecosystem, acting as natural flood control and water filters that support a wide range of wildlife, including a disproportionate number of rare and endangered species.
According to the DNR, Wisconsin has only about half the amount of wetlands it did when the first European settlers arrived. Most of those remaining 5.3 million acres are in the northern third of the state.
Meteor has proposed to restore and preserve more than 640 acres of other land — including more than 296 acres of existing wetlands — near the the 752-acre site between Warrens and Millston, 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.
The DNR has granted Clean Wisconsin’s request for a contested case hearing before an administrative law judge where interested parties can present evidence and cross-examine witnesses. That hearing has been postponed until an amended permit is issued.
Clean Wisconsin argues that destroying the “pristine” forested wetlands — home to several rare and endangered species — would open the door to the destruction of more rare wetlands. The DNR acknowledged the permit approval “may lead to increased applications to fill rare, sensitive and valuable wetland plant communities.”