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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

No need to re-plumb MN and WI to stop Asian carp

What a mess Asian carp would make of this treasure: the Lower Wisconsin Riverway.

Rat has harped -- or should I say, "carped" -- on this before. It's about the inattention paid to the threat of Asian carp invading the upper reaches of the Mississippi River basin -- meaning great Wisconsin rivers like the St. Croix, Black, Chippewa and Wisconsin.

It's in sharp contrast to all the attention paid -- in a recent instance, $2 million of attention -- to how to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. (The Asian invaders are far likelier to find a path to Wisconsin via the Mississippi than via Lake Michigan.) A group of private foundations bankrolled a study to see how the Chicago canal and related stormwater and sewage systems would have to be re-plumbed. The study was released today (January 31).

At first glance, this report is great work: it details plans and their costs to separate the basins to minimize the spread of invasive creatures between the two basins.

It exposes two other things: how excruciatingly slow the Corps of Engineers is in doing the same work (their own study of the issue is more comprehensive, but won't be completed until 2015), and shows how desperately we need a similar investment for the upper reaches of the Mississippi River.

Minnesota's natural resources department has put more effort to this question than its Wisconsin counterpart, but you get a sense from both agencies of contradictory positions: that either Asian carp are inevitable, or that because a few strays have been found in our border waters for years doesn't mean there will be an infestation (i.e. no evidence that they're breeding).

You gotta wonder how a couple million dollars of intense and serious study might clarify this question. Rat's not sure where such money is lying around, but the first step has to be making a case for it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wretched Mining Bill Moves Up

Before the party-line vote to approve the awful mining bill and send it to the full Assembly, it was all Rat could do to keep from squeaking out loud in outrage at the antics of some of the legislators. Representatives Louis Molepske, Penny Bernard Schaber and Sandy Pasch asked hard questions about the eight amendments to the bill that were offered up by Republican members of the Assembly Committee on Jobs, the Economy and Small Business. The mealy mouthed answers they received made it abundantly clear that none of the amendments did a thing to address the myriad concerns raised by citizens from around the state. Representative Pasch didn’t mince words: “This whole process has been tainted. The amendments don’t address any of the concerns we all heard over and over again.”

The proposed bill significantly weakens protections for groundwater, lakes, streams and wetlands, undercuts public participation and reduces the ability of the communities most impacted by a mine to protect themselves. At a day-long hearing in Milwaukee, those in opposition to the bill outnumbered supporters two to one. Even more telling, at another day-long hearing in Hurley where support for a new mine and the hope of jobs it represents runs high, no local citizen or elected official supported the provisions that weaken environmental protections or public process. But on Tuesday, the Assembly Committee approved it anyway.

And the amendments they made have nothing to do with protecting people or the environment – they are about covering the butts of the bill authors, pure and simple. The changes made do nothing more than

obscure the bill’s most blatant violations of federal law and Wisconsin’s constitution. Incredibly, Representative Amy Loudenbeck showed the cards of the Republican Assembly caucus when she stated that was in fact the intent of at least one of the amendments. The Public Trust Doctrine, a long-standing component of the state constitution, mandates the state protect waterways for the public. The proposed bill stated that because a mine is in the public interest (?!!), water withdrawals needed for mining activities outweigh any subsequent harm done to lakes and rivers. Recognizing this clearly violates the Public Trust Doctrine, an amendment to soften this language was offered “to reduce the chance for legal challenges,” according to Representative Loudenbeck.

Despite the outpouring of concerns and recommended revisions to the bill to protect Wisconsin citizens and natural resources, the Committee’s Republican members chose instead to just listen to the warnings of their attorneys about where the bill is most vulnerable to be overturned in court. Nothing like sound public policymaking, eh?

Posted by the River Rat

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A million reasons why there won't be a mining bill

The environmental crowd is pensive these days, waiting to see what the Wisconsin Legislature does with the mining legislation that Republican legislators have cooked up, with chefs from the mining industry clearly present in the kitchen. Hundreds have testified at two different hearings against this bill. So too have supporters, but a public opinion poll last fall showed a majority of Wisconsinites do NOT favor weakening environmental laws for the sake of an iron mine.

The mining bill is the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to environmental matters, but there are also a couple of skunks in that same room that could do equal or greater damage to the rivers, lakes and land, all across Wisconsin. More on those in a minute.

The next act with that elephant should be that the bill gets passed out of the committee that spawned it, the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business. That's what Capitol watchers are watching for: will the bill get voted out of committee, so the Assembly as a whole can vote on it (where it will pass)?

Rat's guess: NO, it will not make it out of committee. Why? In part because of well orchestrated and passionate opposition to the bill, but also because Republican cash constituents got a lot of what they wanted with the skunks that have been passed out of committee.

And there's another reason they don't want to put it to a vote. But let Rat wax about those skunks for a minute. One skunk deregulates digging, dirt-moving, tree-cutting and so forth on land next to water. Ya can't let some dumb environmental law get in the way of a guy carving out a small harbor for his pontoon boat on a tiny lake. The other skunk is a trash-the-wetlands bill, whose authors believe you wreck a wetland where you want to put a truck stop as long as you get to make a fake wetland somewhere else where it will never bother developers.

These crappy bills HAVE been voted out of committees in both chambers of the Legislature. They will likely pass in both chambers next week and Gov. Walker will sign them.

So, Republican legislators can tell the home builders, the realtors, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and other enemies of the environment that they delivered. Delivering for an out-of-state mining company is less important politically to them than keeping the aforementioned homeboys happy and their campaign donations rolling in.

But there's another reason Republicans would just as soon sit on a mining bill right now -- oh, make that about a million reasons. That would be the fact that their man, Gov. Scott Walker, will be recalled and put to another vote. The last thing Republicans want is to have a few pounds of iron ore hanging around the neck of Walker in a recall election, when the populace is at best ambivalent about a fast-tracked open-pit iron mine 25 miles from the beloved Lake Superior.

Walker has been pretty quiet about the Penokee Hills mine, other than to utter his usual "jobs" line. But a mining bill, foisted and passed by fellow Republicans, would wash up on Walker's shore in a recall election, and the GOP does not want to deal with that litter.