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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Stinky Process, Stinky Bill

Rat snuck into the December 14 Assembly Committee on Jobs, Small Business and the Economy hearing on their fit-for-the-garbage-pail (and I don’t mean that in a good way) mining bill. Held in Milwaukee so the suits at Caterpillar, one of the biggest manufacturers of mining equipment in the world, could claim that jobs would be saved in Milwaukee if a big strip mine is allowed in northern Wisconsin, the committee’s ploy ended up biting them in the behind.

The suits were certainly there, but they were far outnumbered by folks who saw the bill for what it is – a give-away of Wisconsin’s natural resources to an out-of-state company. People came from around the state, including a busload of opponents from Ashland County where the impacts from a strip mine would be focused, who braved icy roads and an over seven-hour drive to be there. It was hard to avoid getting stepped on as the room was packed with about 400 people, and of the people who registered to speak, opponents outnumbered supporters 121 to 64, a ratio of 2:1.

Here’s what River Alliance Policy Program Manager/River Rat Lori Grant had to say to the committee:

“In 2006, after several years of work, the River Alliance was very pleased when the legislature designated 40 northern rivers as Outstanding and Exceptional Resource Waters. Six were in the Bad River Watershed, including the Bad River itself. In 2009, the Brunsweiler River, also in the Bad River Watershed, was the first state Wild River designated in over 40 years. But now we fear those efforts may have been a waste of time.

To be clear, the River Alliance of Wisconsin is not opposed to mining in general, or a fair process for considering a mine – as long as the environment is protected. However, any strip mine constructed and operated in the Bad River Watershed under the proposed bill would be allowed to irreparably damage these pristine waterways and the watershed as a whole.

Make no mistake – this bill substantially reduces environmental protections from mining.

We are opposed to:

Rushing the bill to hearing without providing citizens the opportunity to read and understand it’s far-reaching implications for our natural resources

Preventing the citizens most impacted by a mine, not to mention DNR, from challenging the information provided by a mining company

Forcing DNR to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement and make permit decisions in an absurdly short time frame, without adequate staff or funds - in essence removing science from the permit process

But our greatest concerns are the drastic changes to protections for water.

Unlike Minnesota and Michigan, those states most cited as having model mining laws, as well as Wisconsin’s current mining law, this bill creates “special” environmental standards for iron mines. Other industries and businesses in the state, not to mention property owners, must adhere to common, statewide standards to protect groundwater, lakes, streams and wetlands. But this bill sets its own standards for mining, and goes so far to state that where the mining law conflicts with other laws, the mining law trumps all others.

These “special” standards:

Allow mine wastes to be piled next to rivers and lakes, in floodplains and areas where groundwater contamination is deemed likely. A property owner can’t build their cottage too close to the water, but mine wastes with up to a 50% slope? No problem.

Require DNR to allow critical wetlands to be filled, as long as there is mitigation someplace in the state. That certainly doesn’t do much for the rivers fed by that wetland if the mitigation is three counties away.

Completely reverse consideration for making major alterations to rivers – dredging, filling, widening, straightening (or shall we say burying in mine waste or obliterating altogether?). Current law prohibits alterations that do irreparable damage to natural resources. Instead, the bill requires DNR to allow such alterations if they will not “significantly” impair public rights or degrade water quality. The term “significantly” is not defined, and the bill prohibits DNR from creating rules that would better define or list criteria for making such a call. Given that one of the stated intentions of the bill is to take subjective decisions out of the mine review process, this provision adds more.

The bill requires DNR to allow huge groundwater withdrawals and direct withdrawals from rivers or lakes, even if it will severely draw down the resource. Why? Because remarkably, the bill declares that the needs of the mine, when it comes to water withdrawals, are in the best interest of the public. The needs of a mine are declared to prevail over drinking water and trout streams?

This is just a short list of the potential damage the bill would allow, but the overriding presumption that mining should be permitted at all cost is pervasive throughout the bill. The River Alliance cannot support any bill that maintains this presumption”.

It should be quite on the mining front until after the holidays, but Rat will be keeping nose to the ground on this one.

KO'd by CAFOs

CAFO is not a new brew at your local coffee shop. It's a classic bureaucratic acronym -- Confined (or some say Concentrated) Animal Feeding Operation.

It goes by more pejorative descriptions -- factory farm, industrial agriculture, animal factory.
Technically speaking, a CAFO is a CAFO only if it has at least 1,000 "animal units" -- another peculiar bureaucratic formulation that translates to about 700 milk cows.

And in Wisconsin it's the milk-cow CAFO we worry about. As dairy farms got big and broke through the CAFO sound barrier, they housed around 1,000, maybe 2,000 cows tops. That's been the case for years until another sound barrier was broken, to where 5,000, 7,000, even 10,000-cow dairy operations are starting to appear. The first and most notorious was Rosendale Dairy, in Fond du Lac County, whose huge size and cavalier attitude about the impacts of tens of millions of gallons of manure prompted neighbors, People Organized to Protect the Land, to organize, challenge and resist.

Equally notorious is Larson Acres, in Rock County, whose legal troubles with neighbors over groundwater and stream contamination prompted the dairy industry to successfully push for removal of most local decision-making regarding big livestock farms. Larson Acres is still in litigation; its neighbors and the town government made their case against Larson Farms' water pollution before the Wisconsin Supreme Court this fall.

Rock County citizens see deja vu all over again with another mega-dairy of 5,000 cows. This one, Rock Prairie Dairy, had originally proposed to spray its manure through sprinkler-like irrigation devices, but public outcry forced a change in those plans. The farm got its pollution discharge permit from the Wisconsin DNR in June.

And Big Dairy arrived in Adams County too, with 6000-cow Richfield Dairy getting permitted both for pollution discharge and to pump up to 130 million gallons of water per year in a part of the state where groundwater is being stretched to its limit.

Like most of these huge dairies, Richfield's permits are being legally challenged by neighbors likely to be affected by the hundreds of millions of gallons of manure being spread and tens of millions of gallons of water being withdrawn (and exported away, in the form of milk, of course).

One retired DNR official has said that agency is totally ill-equipped to give good scrutiny to these huge dairy farms. But even if the agency had 20 people devoted full time to reviewing CAFO permits, it would be up against this political and economic fact: no one in charge of state government wants to mess with the dairy industry. And it's not just the Scott Walker regime; Jim Doyle also had a sweet "Deal With Big Dairy."

Is this due simply to the industry's political clout? While that clout is considerable, Rat doesn't believe it's that simple. Given this state's struggling economy and as the other pillar of Cheesehead economic clout, manufacturing, continues to decline, the "raw wealth" of agriculture, in particular the dairy industry, is very appealing. Dairy farmers take natural resources and render it into high-value products. There's little infrastructure cost to prop up the industry, no unions to fight (just undocumented workers, but that's another story), and pollution controls are minimal.

It's an economic gift that gives generously, and no elected official accountable for the Wisconsin economy wants to mess with a (excuse the pun) cash cow like that. Opponents of CAFOs have to acknowledge that as they storm the dairy industry's barricades.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Rush – At the Capitol, not the Mall

Some members of the legislature are hell bent on adding to their list of attacks on protections of Wisconsin’s natural resources before the year is out. Confused by the bum-rush? That seems to be the intent. While we haven’t yet seen (as of today, anyway) an expected bill revising wetland protections, here are the two biggies:

1. Gutting Protections and Public Process for Mines

Assembly bill LRB 3520/1, written at the behest of an out-of-state mining company behind closed doors, dramatically weakens environmental protections, removes local citizens from the permit review process, and forces DNR to rubber stamp permits for new iron mines. Less than a week after the 183 bill saw the light of day, the Assembly will hold their public hearing in Milwaukee, more than 325 miles from the proposed mine site.

In a nutshell:

  • The bill and the process by which it is being rammed through the legislature takes away the voice of Wisconsin citizens.
  • It elevates mining above all other industries and businesses in the state, applying special rules that allow mines to bypass the environmental and public health requirements that apply to everyone else.
  • It takes science out of decision making, from preventing experts from questioning the mining company’s data to cutting the permit review time so short, DNR literally won’t have the time to review information and make valid decisions.

The hearing will be held at State Fair Park, Tommy Thompson Youth Center, beginning at 10:00.

2. Fast-Tracking Development in Lakes and Rivers

While conservationists are headed to Milwaukee to oppose the Assembly’s mining bill on Wednesday, December14, both the Senate and Assembly Natural Resource Committees will be voting on the controversial bill that “streamlines” the permit process for private projects in our public waterways.

The tremendous outpouring of concern by many of you to your legislators and at the public hearing in October did make a difference. The authors have removed many of the most blatant special interest giveaways, but the rotten heart of the bill remains. Now known as SB 326 in the Senate and AB 421 in the Assembly, the bill still:

  • Requires automatic approval for private projects in public waters;
  • Places the burden of proving a project will be harmful on neighbors instead of requiring the developer to prove it won’t;
  • Legalizes party decks and gazebos illegally built on lakes and rivers; and
  • Stops DNR from limiting pier construction in the state’s most sensitive shore areas.

The Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment will meet at 9:30 in Room 412E of the Capitol

The Senate Natural Resources Committee will meet at 10:00 in Room 300 SE.

No public testimony will be taken, but don’t let them take their votes out of the public eye. If you can’t make the mining hearing in Milwaukee, take a few minutes of your Wednesday morning to let the committee members know, we are watching.

Friday, October 21, 2011

It Finally Has a Name -- Even Two

Credit the Occupy Wall Street people with simplifying the complicated topic of the dominance of the bankers over the political system by naming the bankers the “One Percent” and the rest of us rats on this sinking ship the 99%. One photo Rat saw from the Wall Street occupation said it beautifully. It depicted a woman holding her granddaughter and a sign that read, “99% chance that you’re with us.”

Finding an easy way to explain how wealth has become skewed to the top of the economic food chain is hard to do without pummeling people with lots of numbers and arcane economic theory. But there are people – and from the mainstream academic world, not just a park bench in Manhattan – who are making this topic more accessible and interesting.

Rat recently found a rat hole in the swank new Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at UW-Madison, where I snuck in to overhear a talk by Yale University political scientist Jacob Hacker. Author of Winner Take All Politics, Hacker tossed out lots of numbers to explain the wealth disparity. The most salient: how the One Percent’s percentage increase in income since 1970 is six times higher than that for the rest of us. Another: 40% of all income increases in the U.S. since 1970 went to the One Percent.

The typical rat brain struggles with numbers, but also with big words. Rat hopes the big word “oligarchy” rings a bell with the 99% of Americans who are not the One Percent. Another academic, political economist Jeffrey Winters, of Northwestern University, has re-introduced that term to the political discussion, along with one he may have coined –the wealth defense industry.

Read his article A useful complement to Hacker’s numbers, Winters’ narrative account of how the uber-rich have wired the political system (for them, the most important thing to do) to their considerable advantage, and they more wealth they amass, the more lawyers, lobbyists, right-wing think tanks and political contributions they deploy it to protect it.

You have to hope the powerful evidence these two scholars have assembled, paired with the gritty passion of the Occupy Wall Streeters, will give ordinary Americans, in their beleaguered status as the 99%, pause to ask how the country got where it is. Sure, it’s “the government,” but bad government is a byproduct of the oligarchy’s putting the wealth defense industry to work to manipulate government to its benefit.

Rat remains nonpartisan, so I will end this note about partisan politics. Both Hacker and Winters make it clear there is not one political party on which to hang the country’s financial crisis; both have the blood of the 99%’s ever-shrinking economic prospects on their hands. Sure, Republicans align much more with wealthy interests, but Democrats have abetted them at crucial times, and failed to explain to American voters, in real and honest terms, the threats to their economic self-interest.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Someone please put a lamprey on some congressmen

Rat was enjoying an August afternoon on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, near the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, with my rat-letts (offspring), who commented on how clear the water was, despite the fact the beach we were lounging on was right next door to heavily-industrialized Gary/Hammond/Chicago.

I hated to inform the young rats that in this particular instance, such clear water was probably a bad thing. Lake Michigan is being scrubbed sterile by trillions of quagga mussels, an invasive critter that devours the tiny plankton that the rest of this Great Lake's food system depends on. Elsewhere on the Lake Michigan shore, the clarity caused by the quaggas only encourages another scourge -- cladophora, a stringy variety of algae that creates a great green stinky mass when it washes up on shore.

But leave it to Congress to not only ignore how these invasives are destroying the Great Lakes, but try to pass a law that Rat officially dubs the Free Passport for Invasive Creatures Act. The proposed law would exempt ballast water (that's the water ships take in and dump out of their hulls to balance their loads) from pollution regulation, and makes it illegal for states to have tougher standards than federal ones.

This is a really bad idea. In its sponsors' defense of costs to the shipping industry, it totally ignores the billions of dollars of repair and maintenance costs and lost recreational revenues from the invasives that are fundamentally altering the Great Lakes.

For a fine, and very sobering, assessment of the weird paradox of how mussels are making the lakes both nutrient-rich and starving them of nutrients, and therefore messing with the entire system, see this new report from the National Wildlife Federation.

The whole thing makes Rat want to loose sea lampreys upon those members of Congress supporting this bill. Also an invader to the Great Lakes via the Atlantic Ocean, lampreys attach themselves (that's the mouth of one in the picture up there) to their victims and eventually suck them dead. Lampreys know only cold-blooded animals, so as far as members of Congress go, that definitely works.

(This bill was passed out of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week on a voice vote, so it's hard to know how the two Wisconsin members serving on that committee -- Rep. Reid Ribble and Rep. Tom Petri -- voted on the measure. When Rat's moles find out, we'll let you know.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Nasty Trail of Mining Dirt

As a rat, I have a deep appreciation for cunning and admire a bit of deviousness. After all, that’s how my kind has survived in this rough, sometimes unfriendly world. But even I was taken aback by the latest high jinks in the hallowed halls of the state capitol, and the doublespeak and outright lies by those who stand to gain.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or should I say in deference to my many friends who do indeed live under rocks, blissfully oblivious to state news), there has been much ado about a renewed interest in mining in Wisconsin, and a giant, out of state corporation has made known their intent to create an enormous open pit taconite mine in Ashland County. Couched in the tired old cliché that environmental protections kill jobs, there has been much rhetoric about how state laws protecting water resources undermine the potentially vast economic boon that open pit mining could bring to Wisconsin.

In spring, a terrible bill completely undermining environmental protections and clearly written by the mining industry was leaked to the public but was never formally introduced. Just last week, blithely ignoring the well-documented history of boom and bust cycles accompanying mining operations around the world, and without questioning the mining company’s assertion of how many local jobs their operation would actually create, the state senate has created their “Select Committee on Mining Jobs” to look at “streamlining” the state’s mining laws.

First there was a bit of a kerfuffle over who would be appointed to the select committee. The Democrat legislators recommended to join the committee were rejected by the Republican leadership. Then a day later, the recommendations were accepted after all. But that very same day, the Guv introduced a special session (and we all remember the last one, don’t we?) called “Back to Work Wisconsin.” Buried in the long list of bills touted as helping to create jobs are proposals to revise state laws guiding protection of wetlands and streams. There are no details yet, but you can bet they’ll be chock full of many of the exemptions the mining company hoped to achieve through their bill this spring. Suddenly it all makes sense – who cares who’s on the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs? After these special session bills, they won’t have much to talk about anyway!

And then there’s the mining folks. The Wisconsin Mining Association, a self-proclaimed non-partisan organization reconstituted from the dark days of debate on the Crandon Mine that had been proposed at the headwaters of the Wolf River, hosted a press conference to proclaim their fervent belief that job creation and environmental protection go hand in hand. They issued a list of catchy “principles” including this kicker: “The Wisconsin Mining Association believes that facts matter.” Well, that’s certainly comforting. Unfortunately they don’t seem compelled to actually use them.

They also issued their list of key elements of new mining legislation, prefaced by a totally fabricated history of the current mining law. They flatly state, “Wisconsin’s mining laws were written for sulfide mines.” According to the Legislative Reference Bureau, the non-partisan record-keeping arm of the legislature, the fact is that current laws were written for all metallic mining, with a special emphasis on taconite mining! As a result of the Crandon mine debate, the law was amended to add an extra step for proposed sulfide mines, but that step does not apply to taconite mine proposals. There is absolutely no need to change our current laws to ensure the efficient review of a taconite mine proposal. The real issue is that an enormous, deep mine in the Penokee hills could not possibly proceed without utterly devastating the water resources of the region, and the changes demanded by the Wisconsin Mining Association and their cronies in the legislature are to allow just that.

posted by the River Rat

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cry A River for the Paper Industry?

Never did this Rat expect to write a salutation to the Wisconsin paper industry, given how it dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste in Wisconsin’s rivers and constipated them with their dams. We are still cleaning up after the industry on the Fox River, getting rid of toxic PCBs from the mud and muck of that fabled river.

Last week we learned that New Page, an Ohio company that owns four paper mills in Wisconsin – oh, make that three now, but it had been four up until February, and as many as six a few years ago – filed for bankruptcy. It is staring at over $3 billion in debt.

The latest plant to be shuttered by New Page was their facility in Whiting, near Stevens Point. 360 jobs gone.

Given this industry was a voracious tree-eating, pollution-spewing monster parked on the state’s major rivers, do we even cry a river for them?

Yes. Despite its history of resource abuse, the paper industry cleaned up its act. It required a federal law and state enforcement to do it, but they got there. The Wisconsin River is a recreational gem these days, a possibility unheard of in 1970. Even the bedraggled and dumped-upon Fox River is being rehabilitated, its image improving yearly as the water quality improves in kind.

But not just on the river but out in the woods too we have decried the paper industry – all those trees cut, all that forestland ravaged. Even though industrial forests are treated like cornfields, that land once provided wildlife and bird habitat is now being cut up into 40-acre hunting plots and disrupting the continuity of that land that made for such good habitat. Many are lamenting the loss of the big forest tracts, for the sake of the birds.

Consolidated Papers was the kingpin of Wisconsin paper. Its empire was strung up and down the Wisconsin River and far afield into northern Wisconsin, where it raised and cut the pulp to feed its mills. It was a community-minded corporate citizen, helping build facilities and parks in the communities it had plants in and providing family-supporting wages. (Most paper plants in the Wisconsin and Fox river valleys were unionized.)

When Consolidated sold to Stora Enso, a Finnish company, in 2000, you could hear the dominoes getting stacked up, foretelling what was to come. By 2007, Stora Enso sold the mills it had bought from Consolidated at Biron, Wisconsin Rapids, Whiting, Niagara, Stevens Point and Kimberly. The first domino dropped in Niagara (320 jobs), where the rusting hulk of that mill looms over the small town like a metallic alien crashed into the river bluff. (Check out the picture.) Kimberly was next (600 jobs), and just this year, the plug was pulled at Whiting (360 jobs). Biron, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids are still operating, but with dark clouds over their smokestacks.

Wisconsin had the key ingredients to make a paper industry – trees, moving water, and hard-working people. The trees have grown back, the rivers have largely recovered, but good-paying paper mill jobs are gone. Some of it is due to cheaper raw material and labor in Asia. Some of it is due to paper industry greed and shortsightedness. Some of it is due to the very device through which you read this essay – the paperless Internet.

For many reasons, especially how a healthy paper industry helped many Wisconsin communities and families prosper over the decades, we should lament its demise.