In May 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) granted a permit to Meteor Timber in Monroe County to fill 16.25 acres of wetlands, including 13.37 acres of white pine – red maple swamp, a very rare wetland type remaining in Wisconsin. The purpose was to construct a frac sand plant and rail transfer facility.
Two environmental organizations are challenging the Meteor permit through a Contested Case Hearing scheduled for February 26 – March 2. A central issue is whether the decision to allow filling the rare wetlands meets legal standards and is supported by the facts, given the difficulty of mitigating for loss of those wetlands. The environmental groups are following the process laid out in Wisconsin law for citizens to legally challenge a permit decision.
However, on February 22, 2018, the Assembly took an action to circumvent that legal review, by exempting Meteor Timber from needing a state wetland permit at all.
The Assembly amended an unrelated bill with language to clearly exempt this single business from wetland permitting requirements. Amendment 2 to Assembly Bill 956 provided the exemption. The Assembly passed the amended bill. The original bill, Assembly Bill 956 and Senate Bill 816, deal with statewide wetland mitigation procedures. Mitigation is the process of compensating for wetland loss when a wetland fill permit is issued, and usually involves restoring wetlands elsewhere. If enacted into law, this bill as amended would intervene in the established review process of the permit decision, and would give preferential treatment to a business for which the permit is questioned by the public.
The process to obtain a permit to fill wetlands involves many steps. When a developer applies for a permit to fill wetlands, they must consider practical alternatives to avoid wetlands and ways to minimize impacts. For large fills, the developer must plan compensatory mitigation for the wetlands that would be lost. The DNR reviews the entire proposal along with information on the quality and functions of the wetlands that would be impacted. The DNR must consider all of those factors when evaluating a permit, and lays out the facts supporting the decision in the permit documents.
Citizens may request judicial review of DNR permit decisions. The Contested Case Hearing allows for examination of the facts and fair evaluation and review of the DNR permit decision. Wisconsin’s citizens deserve the facts.
Legislative actions to avoid legal scrutiny of a permit decision are not the actions of transparent governance.
The bill next goes to the Senate. Senate Bill 816, the companion bill, is slated to go to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy for a public hearing on Wednesday February 28 at 10:00 am in 201 Southeast in the State Capitol.
For more information you can read this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: