Two environmental protection groups have challenged the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ approval of a Monroe County frac sand operation.
Midwest Environmental Advocates and Clean Wisconsin are seeking reviews of the decision last month to grant Meteor Timber permits to fill 16.25 acres of wetlands to make way for a proposed $65 million processing and loading facility that would serve a nearby mining site the Georgia investment company acquired in a 2014 purchase of nearly 50,000 acres.
That would be the largest single destruction of wetlands in the state for an industrial frac sand project, according to Clean Wisconsin.
In petitions filed with the DNR and in Dane County Court, 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.
Staff attorney Evan Feinauer noted the DNR granted the permit despite its own admission that doing so could set a precedent for filling rare wetlands.
“They’re really pushing on the boundaries of what the statute permits,” he said. “And they’re well aware of this.”
MEA filed a separate petition in Monroe County Circuit Court on behalf of the Ho-Chunk Nation, which has “significant tribal and trust land throughout Wisconsin” and ties to land near the project site along I-94 near the town of Millston.
“The Nation’s government is dedicated to protecting its people and its lands for this and future generations,” the petition states. “The expansive and permanent destruction of the landscape, including wetlands, for industrial sand mines threatens the Nation’s people, land, and cultural heritage.”
MEA staff attorney Sarah Geers said the nonprofit legal group also plans to join Clean Wisconsin’s petition for a contested hearing with the DNR.
Both groups claim the agency granted the permit without all the information required to legally review the application. They note that the DNR requested additional information needed to assess the impact of the project and the proposed mitigation as a condition of the permit.
In an email to the Tribune, DNR communications director James Dick declined to answer questions, saying, “We won’t be commenting on pending litigation.” A spokesman for Meteor also declined to comment.
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.
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 acknowledged the permit approval “may lead to increased applications to fill rare, sensitive and valuable wetland plant communities.”
Regulators and opponents both questioned the project’s economic viability, given the drop in demand for sand since domestic fracking peaked in 2014.
An economic analysis by a Pennsylvania consultant said the location would allow Meteor to efficiently ship trainloads of sand directly to oil fields in Texas, which 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 and has said it cannot find another location on the line to accommodate such a large plant.
Geers argues that Meteor failed to prove the project will have a public economic benefit and didn’t do enough research on alternate, less destructive sites.
Meteor has also said permitting its project is the only way to prevent much of the 752-acre site from being clear cut.
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. In a letter to Meteor, A&K managing partner Marty Alexander said if he is unable to sell the land logging would be his only way to pay back a $321,470 loan he took out to settle the case.
Meteor still needs permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before filling any wetlands. Section chief Jeffrey Olson said the Corps is awaiting an opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the potential impact to the endangered massasauga rattlesnake, which he expects to receive this summer.
Olson said neither challenge to the DNR permit will affect the Corps process.
“We’re still going to make our decision one way or another,” Olson said.