DNR approves wetland loss in sand mining project

Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A timber company's plans to develop a $65 million sand processing facility between Tomah and Black River Falls that would destroy a large swath of wetlands were approved by the Department of Natural Resources last week.

This is an aerial view of a northwestern Wisconsin frac sand-mining operation.


Meteor Timber is proposing to construct a plant and rail transfer site in Monroe County where sand from a nearby mine it owns would be shipped to drillers in Texas and North Dakota, where production is ramping up.

Sand is a key ingredient in fracking and is used under pressure with water to prop open pockets of oil and gas.

Meteor, a large private landowner with extensive forest holdings in Wisconsin, has touted the economics of the project and its willingness to take extra steps to make up for the loss of wetlands.

But environmentalists have been critical of the company's plans because of the large wetlands loss and potential harm to wildlife and the ecosystem. 

The DNR approved plans by the company to destroy 16.25 acres of wetlands, including 13.37 acres of white pine and red maple swamp. A white pine, red maple swamp is considered imperiled by the DNR because there are few remaining sites in Wisconsin.

Meteor's plans would be the largest wetlands loss from the sand industry in a decade, according to the DNR. 

Sarah Geers, an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates, said in an email that the agency's findings and the numerous requirements it is imposing on the company "raise questions about whether this project is approvable under Wisconsin and federal law."

Geers also said that the agency's review "reflects the extraordinary damage this wetland fill will do to a sensitive and imperiled resource."

She declined to say whether her Madison-based law group would challenge the decision. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also reviewing the project.

Before the company can go forward, the DNR is requiring Meteor to carry out numerous duties, including ongoing water quality studies and assessing whether wildlife underpasses and track crossings will work. The passageways are untested in Wisconsin, officials noted.

The agency cited potential environmental perils of the project. The loss of white pine- red maple swamp "is expected to be irreversible and has high significance." But officials also concluded that if all of the requirements are followed, it will not have an adverse affect on water quality.

The DNR is also requiring the Meteor to establish an endowment fund to cover long-term management of the site. Geers said the DNR should have spelled out the requirements ahead of time. 

Meteor says it plans to create nearly 100 jobs with the project. To make up for the wetlands loss, the company is shutting down a cranberry bog on the property, upgrading a stream and preserving and protecting more than 640 acres. 

“Those are some of the reasons that we believe that the project represents not only positive economic growth but good environmental sustainability," said Evan Zeppos, a spokesman for the company.  

He said the company can meet all DNR requirements.