Meteor AK Knapp sand locator map
CHRIS HUBBUCH, chubbuch@lacrossetribune.com

Wisconsin’s environmental protection agency has agreed to reconsider whether to let a Georgia investment company fill Monroe County wetlands for a frac sand processing site.

The Department of Natural Resources issued a letter Wednesday granting Clean Wisconsin’s petition for a contested case hearing on a permit allowing Meteor Timber to fill 16¼ acres of wetlands for its proposed $65 million processing and loading facility.

Clean Wisconsin asked the agency to review its decision, saying it would be the single largest destruction of Wisconsin wetlands for an industrial sand project.

The environmental advocacy group 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 agency acknowledged the permit approval “may lead to increased applications to fill rare, sensitive and valuable wetland plant communities.”

The DNR agreed to consider whether it had sufficient information to grant the permit, whether the project will have significant negative environmental impacts and whether it represents the least harmful alternative.

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.

In a written statement, Meteor project manager Chris Mathis said the company’s mitigation plan “goes above and beyond others” and represents one of the largest wetland restoration efforts in state history.

“The DNR gave our application thorough and extensive review, and we are confident the approved permit fully conforms to the law because of the significant net environmental benefit our project will provide to the state,” Mathis said. “We respect the DNR’s decision to schedule a hearing, and will continue to cooperate with the agency as we have done from the start.”

Similar to a court trial, a contested case hearing is typically overseen by an administrative law judge and offers interested parties an opportunity to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses.

A hearing date has not been scheduled.

Clean Wisconsin, along with the Ho-Chunk Nation, also filed court challenges to the permit, though both cases were dropped because of procedural errors. Midwest Environmental Advocates plans to act as an intervenor in the contested case hearing on behalf of the tribe.

Evan Feinauer, staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin, said he was pleased the agency granted the hearing as well as a temporary ban on Meteor filling any wetlands.

Regulators and opponents both questioned the project’s overall public benefit, 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.

Meteor has also said permitting its project is the only way to prevent much of the 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. The current owner 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 has yet to secure wetland permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is expected to make a decision this summer.

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