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Wetlands bill hits snag in state Senate

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Environmental exemptions that would clear the way for a Georgia company to build a $70 million frac-sand-processing plant in western Wisconsin hit a snag on Wednesday in the state Senate.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee said he had no intention of taking up an amendment that would have added legal exemptions for the plant to an otherwise largely technical bill. Yet, even though state Sen. Rob Cowles said it wasn’t his plan to consider the amendment, “there’s always forces above us that can override this guy.”

The bill before the Senate committee on Wednesday did not include a provision meant to benefit Georgia-based Meteor Timber, the company looking to build the sand plant near Interstate 94 in Monroe County.

Under current law, a person or company must apply for a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources before discharging fill or dredged material into specific wetlands. In certain cases, the applicant cannot get a permit without making plans to restore, establish or preserve other wetlands.

These steps, known collectively as mitigation, are meant to compensate for any harm the resulting discharges might cause. SB 816 would require that the mitigation be done in the same vicinity as where a discharge is made.

S.R. Miller, a representative of Kenosha-based Augusta Enterprises and proponent of the bill, said the goal is to get more wetlands in the ground by making sure that mitigation efforts take place in the same area as an affected wetland and by changing how mitigation credits are released.

Jonathon Koepke, a representative of ENCAP Inc., said those credits are released now only after new wetlands have been built to offset harm to existing wetlands, a process that tends to make projects expensive.

“(The bill) will enable other less well financed entities to get into the wetland mitigation business,” Koepke said. “There’s a lack of banks locally. In certain regions, the land is too valuable, so there’s lots of financial risk.”

But many of those testifying in favor of the bill, including ENCAP and Miller’s company, stressed their opposition to the Assembly’s late-night amendment. One of them was the Madison resident Michael Cain, who, during his three decades at the state Department of Natural Resources, had reviewed thousands of permits.

“(The amendment) makes a mockery of the law,” Cain said. “Upon hearing of the amendment, I was personally incensed and felt need to testify on this.”

He said he supported Senate Bill 816 without the amendment.

However, even if Cowles’ committee doesn’t pass SB 816, the full state Senate could still  take up the Assembly version of the bill when it meets on its last planned session day on March 20.

The hearing before the Senate committee came as an administrative-law judge in Tomah was hearing testimony this week in opposition to the state Department of Natural Resources’ decision in May to grant a permit for the project.

Work on the frac-sand plant is on hold until the administrative-law judge hands down his decision on whether the permit for the sand-processing plant was properly granted by DNR. Then, last week, the state Assembly approved an amendment that would exempt Meteor Timber from additional permitting requirements that could be ordered by the judge to protect nearly 16 acres of wetlands that the company plans to fill.

Essentially, the company could move ahead with filling the wetlands even if the appeal to the DNR permit were still pending. But that version of the bill can’t take effect without first passing the Senate and being signed by Gov. Scott Walker.

Cowles said the Assembly’s amendment “obliterates” the state’s permitting process. Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, co-sponsor of the unammended version of the bill in the Senate, said he hadn’t read the changes adopted by the Assembly and didn’t know what they were.

“In general, I have concerns when we have amendments introduced on the floor,” he said on Wednesday.

Sen. Mark Miller, a Democrat, urged Wanggaard to kill the bill, calling the exemptions for Meteor Timber “absolutely outrageous.”

Environmental groups and others have also been speaking out against Meteor Timber’s project, saying the company’s plans would result in the destruction of a 16-acre wetland that includes a 13-acre rare white pine-red maple swamp.

To make up for the loss of those wetlands, the company proposes restoring more than 630 acres of other land, including wetlands, near the 750-acre project site in Millston.

Opponents of the project allege that Meteor Timber is trying to use the Assembly amendment to game the system and get around any adverse ruling from the administrative-law judge. Company leaders have said environmentalists are trying to bully them and are being obstructionists.

Nathan Conrad, executive director of the pro-business advocacy group the Natural Resource Development Association, said the proposed loss of roughly 16 acres of wetlands will be more than made up for with the planned restoration of 630 acres elsewhere. Conrad has also defended the project, saying it will create 300 jobs for construction workers and about 100 more for the people who will work at the plant, which will process industrial sand and ship it to oil-exploration companies in Texas.

The Ho-Chunk Nation and Clean Wisconsin are challenging the DNR’s issuance of the permit. They argue that Meteor Timber’s wetland-mitigation plan won’t make up for the loss of the rare pine-red maple swamp.

Wetlands provide natural flood control and water filtration. They support a wide range of wildlife, are a central part of the ecosystem and in some cases can take hundreds or even thousands of years to develop.

– The Daily Reporter Staff Writer Erika Strebel contributed to this report

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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