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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.