TOMAH — Former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employees are questioning the agency’s decision to allow a Georgia company to fill rare wetlands for a frac sand processing facility in Monroe County.
“I’ve never seen a permit issued like this,” said Gregg Breese, who worked as the DNR’s shoreland and wetland zoning program manager and now prepares permit applications in the private sector.
At issue is a permit allowing Meteor Timber to fill in 16.25 acres of wetlands, including more than 13 acres of white pine and red maple swamp that wetlands ecologist Patricia Trochlell called “exceptional” and “irreplaceable.”
Trochlell, who retired last year after 37 years with the DNR, said she had never seen a permit issued for such a large swath of high-quality wetlands.
Breese and Trochlell noted that the permit was signed by the deputy bureau director, not a front-line specialist, and included a list of questions to be answered.
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Meteor Timber permit to fill enough wetlands to cover 20 football fields was approved by DNR higher-ups after staff said it should be denied.
“The decision was made before the information was even obtained,” Trochlell testified. “It was a matter of getting the information to support that decision.”
They testified Monday at a hearing where the DNR is defending its decision against a challenge brought by Clean Wisconsin and the Ho-Chunk Nation.
The Natural Resources Development Association, a nonprofit lobbying group of which Meteor is a member, issued a statement Monday defending the approximately $70 million project, which is expected to support about 100 jobs.
“Instead of working together to make progress, extreme environmental groups like Clean Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates would rather obstruct the process and obfuscate reality by bringing baseless lawsuits,” said group spokesman Nathan Conrad.
Testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday in what is expected to be a five-day hearing.
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.
The project is on hold pending the outcome, though the Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday passed legislation that would allow Meteor to begin work right away.
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 DNR determined those mitigation efforts “are not likely to fully compensate” for the loss of the swampland, which is considered an imperiled habitat.
Trochlell said the soils supporting such wetlands take more than 1,000 years to develop.
Both former DNR workers said the permit opens the door to more such large wetland losses.
The permit itself includes an acknowledgment that approval “may lead to increased applications to fill rare, sensitive and valuable wetland plant communities.”
Breese testified he had never seen that type of language in a permit.
“This language sounds like somebody that is drafting a permit is concerned about the size … and the impacts … and is not completely comfortable stating what they would be,” he said.
Meteor has told DNR officials that its project is necessary to stop the land’s current owner, the A&K Alexander Cranberry Co., from clear-cutting the timber to pay off a loan that was taken out to settle previous wetland violations.
“This is a reasonable agreement that finds a solution to support both our economy and our environment,” Conrad said. “If this plan fails, 300 acres will be lost to clear cutting, animals will be run off, and the landscape will be anything but pristine.”
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.