The appeals court ruling is a loss for out-of-state frac sand company Meteor Timber, which for years had sought to build a sand processing facility in Monroe County.
And it’s a win for environmental advocates and the Ho-Chunk Nation, who have been fighting the proposed facility since 2015.
For years, Meteor Timber had sought to build a $75 million facility to process frac sand atop Monroe County wetlands. That facility would have included rail loading to transport the sand for fracking projects outside Wisconsin.
In 2017, the Department of Natural Resources granted permission for the project; a year later, an administrative law judge found that the DNR did not have enough information to sign off on the project.
Critics of the project have maintained that the permit would have devastated a rare wooded forest of white pine and red maple and the surrounding wetlands, preventing floods and serving as a crucial habitat for plants and animals. The facility was not a fracking facility, but instead a facility to process sand mined from a separate location to be processed and shipped by rail across the country.
Sand mining has been a Wisconsin industry for decades, particularly in western Wisconsin. But demand for sand increased exponentially in 2014, when fracking for natural gas surged across the country – and so too did demand for the large amounts of high-quality silica needed for those operations. In 2014, Wisconsin had 63 sand mines and 45 sand processing facilities.
Since 2018, though, the sand mining industry has sagged. Kent Syverson is a professor of geology at UW Eau Claire.
“Sand dune deposits were discovered that could be used to frack wells in the Permian Basin in West Texas, and those sand deposits were determined by many operators to be of sufficient quality so they could use that sand instead of railing sand from Wisconsin and Illinois down into Texas. And as this occurred then this reduced demand for the sand from here in Wisconsin and Illinois, and it also reduced the price that could be charged for that sand as well. So many of the operators, they could not survive in the new environment where they could not sell their sand for as much as they estimated at first,” Syverson says.
These sand mines created concerns for environmental activists because of the impact they could have on both the environment and the community around them. By stripping the land of vegetation, the mines can lead to increases in flash flooding, due to the heavy rains releasing uncontrolled amounts of surface water.
While the Monroe County facility would not be a mine, it does carry the same concern, due to where it would be built. By disrupting the wetlands, the area would not have a natural way to deal with heavy rainfalls, which could lead to increased flooding.
The lawsuit was brought forward by both environmental activists and the Ho-Chunk Nation. Ryan Greendeer is the Public Relations Officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. He says that threats of floods is not the only reason why they oppose the facility.
“…and over the course of the last 150 years that contributed to climate alterations and climate change, it has taken a weird turn for the environment we live in, the world we live in. We are not used to experiencing weather phenomena like this in December, and part of that is due to our insistence on the degradation of our environment,” Greendeer says.
The Nation argues that the 2017 permit given to Meteor Timber by the Department of Natural Resources was invalid because the company did not show that the facility would be safe for the environment.
Evan Feinauer is the Staff Attorney for Clean Wisconsin, a group dedicated to protecting clean water and air across the state. Feinauer explains how the court came to today’s ruling.
“We had an administrative law judge, who was the individual who invalidated the permit back in 2018. That was appealed to a circuit court, who affirmed that the ALJ got it right, and that the permit should be invalidated. And this is the court of appeals, (who) are a 3-judge panel. What they were looking at was basically was there some kind of mistake by the administrative law judge from the first order that would warrant putting the permit back into effect. And they found very clearly that there wasn’t, that the ALJ got this right, as did the circuit court, and the permit never should have been issued in the first place,” Feinauer says.
Feinauer says that the company could push this all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court if they choose, and that Clean Wisconsin will continue to fight against the company.
Meteor Timber did not respond to WORT’s request for comment by airtime.