TOMAH — The former head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources criticized the agency’s decision to allow a Georgia company to build a frac sand operation on Monroe County wetlands and legislative attempts to exempt the project from the appeals process.
George Meyer, who served as DNR secretary from 1993 to 2003, testified on behalf of the nonprofit conservation group he now heads at a hearing Friday on a permit allowing Meteor Timber to fill in 16¼ acres of wetlands — including more than 13 acres of white pine and red maple swamp that DNR ecologist called “exceptional” and “irreplaceable” — in order to build the $70 million processing and loading terminal near the town of Millston.
“The permit did not justify the decision,” Meyer said in an interview. “They put conditions into the permit for information that should have been gathered before the permit was issued. That’s trying to milk the cow after it’s out of the barn.”
Meyer, now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said he decided to testify after the state Assembly’s passage of a bill — introduced as an amendment in the final minutes of the session — that would exempt the project from the appeals process.
“That is what brought us here today,” he said. “Agency leadership directions to staff and legislative attempts to intervene and eliminate the impact of a public process is really troubling to us.”
Meyer said the project would set a bad precedent for future permit decisions.
His comments were echoed by Michael Cain, a former DNR attorney who handled wetland issues during 34 years with the agency before his retirement in 2010.
Cain testified that language in the permit indicated it was drafted as part of a planned denial, and it was issued conditional on information that “would reasonably be required before you could even consider issuing a permit.”
“From the structure of the document,” Cain said, “I suspected that someone in the agency must have ordered issuance of a permit in spite of these findings of fact.”
Their comments came at the end of a five-day hearing where the DNR is defending its decision against a challenge from Clean Wisconsin and the Ho-Chunk Nation.
Earlier in the week, agency staff members provided testimony that they followed department policy and that the project would not result in a significant adverse impact if permit conditions are followed.
Meteor has proposed to restore and preserve more than 630 acres of other land near the the 752-acre site near 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 permit stated those mitigation efforts “are not likely to fully compensate” for the loss of the swampland, which is considered an imperiled habitat.
A spokesman for a pro-business group supporting the mine said the project will support hundreds of jobs and the opponents were simply trying to “cause a ruckus.”
“The Natural Resource Development Association once again stands by the edict that not allowing this project to proceed will be a massive determent to the surrounding environment,” Nathan Conrad said. “Those bringing about the obstructionist actions against this project should be ashamed of themselves for the falsehoods that have been put forward.”
Administrative law judge Eric DeFort will determine whether the project will have significant adverse environmental consequences and is the least environmentally harmful alternative as well as whether the agency had sufficient information and followed procedures outlined in state statute.
Parties have until March 16 to file post-hearing briefs, and rulings typically take 30 to 60 days.
A handful of local residents at Friday’s hearing spoke for and against the project.
Scott Goetzka, chairman of the town where Meteor’s mine would be located, testified that Meteor had agreed to the town’s requests regarding setbacks, blasting and haul routes and that the company will pay the town $100,000 a year, which will eliminate the town levy while increasing its road repair budget.
Meteor agreed to make the same payment to the town of Grant, where the processing facility would be located. Town chairman Troy Lambert submitted an affidavit saying the project would create jobs and operate “in a safe and responsible manner.”
“Meteor Timber was been a good, trustworthy company to deal with, and the project will be a boost to my township,” Lambert said.
The current property owner, Marty Alexander, said the project would be “a benefit for everyone in the state.”
Alexander recounted how he lost his crop in a 2010 downpour before running afoul of the Environmental Protection Agency for illegally filling wetlands on his land, which led to fines of more than $320,000, which he had to borrow.
“I’m just a little guy trying to make a living … and support my family,” Alexander said. “Meteor Timber came along … this is a godsend for me.”
He reiterated a threat to cut down all the trees on his property if the project isn’t approved.
“I don’t want to do it,” he said. “But I will have to do it to survive if this project doesn’t happen. I will have no other choice to protect my family.”
“I don’t want to (cut down all the trees), But I will have to do it to survive if this project doesn’t happen. I will have no other choice to protect my family.” Marty Alexander, current property owner