Industrial sand project would destroy pristine wetlands

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

A proposal to build an industrial sand facility in Wisconsin is meeting with opposition. The project would destroy pristine wetlands in Monroe County.

Meteor Timber LLC proposes to dig a sand mine and build a sand-drying plant, rail facility and access roads. It also would lay railroad tracks.

Meteor wants to haul sand from the mine to the drying plant. From there, sand would be shipped to Texas for use in hydraulic fracking operations. The company estimates it would ship 1.5 million tons of sand a year.

In June 2016, Meteor filed an application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Paul, Minnesota, seeking a permit to discharge fill material into 16.25 acres of wetland adjacent to Rudd Creek in the town of Grand.

The company also needs approval from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which has authorized the destruction of 26 acres of wetlands with 60 permits for industrial sand operations since 2008, according to a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.

Meteor’s permit application to the Corps describes an “unavoidable” impact to the wetlands, which are part of the Upper Mississippi Region Watershed.

At least two prominent organizations asking the Corps to deny the permit — Midwest Environmental Advocates and Ho-Chunk Nation — say the wetlands destruction should be avoided. They also question the need for another frac-sand project in the state.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is questioning whether influence peddling is partly behind the deal. At least two special interests involved in it have contributed about $23,000 since January 2010 to Republican and Democratic legislative candidates, according to WDC.

In comments filed with the Corps, MEA staff attorney Sarah Geers, law clerk Zachary Storm and Ho-Chunk legislative attorney Carolyn Grzelak wrote, “This is the largest wetland fill proposed for a single industrial sand facility and is over half the total number of acres filled in Wisconsin for other industrial sand mines since 2008. Meteor Timber’s application should be denied because it is not in the public interest and does not meet minimum regulatory requirements.”

MEA is a nonprofit environmental law firm and Ho-Chunk Nation is a tribe with lands throughout the Midwest, including significant land in Wisconsin.

“The expansive and permanent destruction of the landscape, including wetlands, for industrial sand mines, threatens the Nation’s people, land and cultural heritage,” the attorneys wrote.

“MEA shares the Nation’s concern about the natural resource legacy in this state and advocates for the protection of our valuable water resources.”

In its application, Meteor Timber identified the purpose of the project but didn’t address a need, the attorneys said. It would be difficult to build that case, given the “considerable decline in demand for oil” and subsequent decrease in demand for industrial sand.

Their point: If demand for sand already can be met, there’s no need to destroy wetlands by building a new facility.

Conflict with land use policies, natural habitat

The attorneys also argue Meteor’s application doesn’t account for the impact on wetlands of expanding local roads and they highlight a conflict with land use policies in Monroe and neighboring Jackson County.

Local land management plans prioritize maintaining or increasing wetland acreage and quality — the opposite of Meteor’s intention. The plans also encourage the preservation of farmland, but the Meteor project would destroy cranberry bogs.

Four wetlands would be filled, according to Meteor’s federal application — a hardwood swamp, a shrub swamp, cranberry beds and shallow waters.

Vegetation found in these areas includes peat moss, cinnamon fern, white pine, red maple, tag alder, paper birch, white oak, jewelweed and cranberries.

Meteor has proposed mitigation for the damage to wetlands and also says no federally listed threatened or endangered wildlife or plants or their critical habitat were identified or are “known to exist in the permit area.”

However, the area is in the range of such protected species as the gray wolf, Northern long-eared bat, Eastern massasauga, Karner blue butterfly and Northern monkshood and protected habitat, like prairie and oak savanna.

MEA, in a Jan. 5 statement on its website, said while Meteor “insists that the project will have an overall net environmental benefit — pointing to proposals for wetland mitigation and environmental projects — we question any plans that would destroy pristine habitat in exchange for improving or protecting land that may never truly replace lost, natural ecosystems.”

The DNR, in December 2016, asked Meteor Timber for more information.

As of WiG press time, the Corps had not issued a permit.

See also:

Environmentalists challenge DNR sand mine pollution findings 

Wisconsin DNR releases draft sand mining strategic analysis 

Frac sand mine seeks to expand on Iowa-Wisconsin border