Tag Archives: environmental groups

Wisconsin Republicans seek to demolish DNR

Republicans in control of the Wisconsin state Legislature are considering shutting down the Department of Natural Resources, scattering responsibilities for parks, forestry, environmental, hunting and fishing programs among three existing agencies and two new ones.

Gov. Scott Walker, who fired DNR scientists working in environmental protection and gutted the agency’s authority, is being coy about supporting the plan. But he’s expected to back it, and many observers believe he had a role in developing it.

Walker told the Journal Sentinel that Rep. Adam Jarchow, of Balsam Lake, gave his office a detailed proposal a month ago that would split environmental and wildlife functions into two separate departments. Other duties such as forestry and parks would go to other agencies.

Republicans, who favor development over conservation and have interests in companies seeking to exploit the state’s natural resources, have tried to break up the DNR in the past but have fallen short. The plans have traditionally met with opposition from outdoor clubs and environmental groups, which argue that breaking up the DNR would endanger outdoor recreation, increase costs to taxpayers and further weaken the state’s air and water quality protections.

“Those who (want to split the department) are not friends of conserving the environment,” said George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who now directs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

The GOP proposal comes just three weeks after the DNR announced a major reorganization plan, which agency leaders said would make the department more “efficient” and help defend it from budget cuts. Walker is expected to include that reorganization plan in the state budget he introduces in February.

If the DNR is split up, Republicans will “have one agency they can feed and one they can starve,” former DNR secretary Scott Hassett told the State Journal. “They like to feed fish and wildlife, and starve environmental protection.”

Under Attorney General Brad Schimel, the state Justice Department has shrunk staffing levels in its environmental protection unit to the lowest level in 25 years.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports the unit had six attorneys last year compared to 10 as recently as 2008. Carl Sinderbrand, a lawyer who once worked in the environmental unit, says the staffing reduction may reflect the dwindling number of pollution cases the DNR has referred for legal action. Last year fines against polluters dropped to their lowest point since at least 1994.

The reason: Along with reductions in prosecutions for environmental violations handled by the DOJ, there are fewer DNR inspections being carried out due to agency staffing and budget cuts and a lack of follow-up by the DNR on violations that it does discover.

Under Walker and the state’s Republican leadership, the environment has been under constant attack, according to environmental groups. The moneyed interests, as represented by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, fossil fuel companies and the real-estate industry, have gradually gained the upper hand since Wisconsin came under one-party rule in 2011.

Environmental coalition demands regs to stop dumping of drilling, fracking waste

A coalition of environmental organizations on Aug. 26 filed a legal notice with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanding regulations to stop oil and gas companies from dumping drilling and fracking waste in ways that threaten public health and the environment.

Laura Allen, EPA deputy press secretary, said in an emailed response, “EPA will review the notice of intent and any related information submitted to the agency.”

The groups filing the notice letter are the Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. The groups say the EPA must comply with its long-overdue obligations to update waste disposal rules that should have been revised more than a quarter century ago.

“We’re asking that EPA finally do what it found to be necessary back in 1988: update the regulations for oil and gas wastes,” said Adam Kron, attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project. “The oil and gas industry has grown rapidly since then, and yet EPA has repeatedly shirked its duties for nearly three decades. The public deserves better protection than this.”

For example, the groups said EPA should institute stricter controls for underground injection wells, which accept 2 billion gallons of oil and gas wastewater every day and have been linked to numerous earthquakes in Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas.

EPA should ban the practice of spreading fracking wastewater onto roads or fields, which allows toxic pollutants to run off and contaminate streams.

And EPA should require landfills and ponds that receive drilling and fracking waste to be built with adequate liners and structural integrity to prevent spills and leaks into groundwater and streams.

“Oil and gas waste is extremely dangerous — yet the EPA admitted decades ago that federal rules are inadequate to protect the public,” said Matthew McFeeley, attorney at NRDC.  “The scary truth is that right now this waste—complete with carcinogens and radioactive material—is being dumped irresponsibly or disposed of like everyday household garbage. Toxic waste should not be sent to run-of-the-mill landfills, sprayed on our roads and fields or stored in open air pits.”

The groups notified EPA that they will file a lawsuit in 60 days unless the agency complies with its duty under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to review and revise the federal regulations governing how oil and gas waste must be handled and disposed.

RCRA requires that EPA review the regulations at least every three years and, if necessary, revise them. The agency determined that such revisions of the regulations were necessary to address specific concerns with oil and gas wastes more than 25 years ago, yet has failed to meet its legal responsibility to act.

Over the past decade, the oil and gas industry’s fracking-based boom has produced a vast amount of solid and liquid waste. Each well produces millions of gallons of wastewater and hundreds of tons of drill cuttings, which contain contaminants that pose serious risks to human health. These include known carcinogens such as benzene, toxic metals such as mercury and radioactive materials.

However, the current RCRA rules that govern oil and gas wastes are too weak because they are the same rules that apply to all “non-hazardous” wastes, including household trash.

As a result, oil and gas companies are handling, storing and disposing of these wastes in a number of troublesome ways, according to the environmental groups. These include: spraying fracking waste fluids onto roads and land near where people live and work; disposing of billions of gallons of oil and gas wastewater in underground injection wells; sending the drill cuttings and fracking sands to landfills not designed to handle toxic or radioactive materials; and storing and disposing of wastewater in pits and ponds, which often leak.

Across the U.S., there are numerous instances of wastes leaking out of ponds and pits into nearby streams and the groundwater beneath, and operators often “close” the pits by simply burying the wastes on site.

Aaron Mintzes, Policy Advocate for Earthworks, said, “While it’s sadly common for states to fail to enforce their own oil and gas oversight laws, it is especially shameful that we should have to sue the Environmental Protection Agency, the only federal agency solely dedicated to protecting the environment and human health, to force EPA to fulfill its legal obligations to protect us from fracking pollution.”

Some examples of problems caused by the improper disposal and handling of fracking and drilling waste:

Ohio:  Underground injection wells in Ohio accepted 22 million barrels of oil and gas wastewater for disposal in 2014, nearly four times the amount in 2009.  This has resulted in scores of earthquakes in the well-dense Youngstown area, with one well alone linked to 77 earthquakes.  The Ohio Oil and Gas Commission recently noted that regulations “have not kept pace” with the problem, and that (to an extent) both the state and industry are “working with their eyes closed.”

Pennsylvania: In May 2012, a 6-million-gallon industrial pond holding fracking wastewater in Tioga County leaked pollutants, including arsenic and strontium, through holes in its liner into groundwater and a nearby trout stream.

West Virginia: Oil and gas wastewater dumped or spilled in rivers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania contains high levels of potentially hazardous ammonium and iodide, according to a study by Duke University scientists. 

North Dakota: In January 2015, 3million gallons of drilling wastewater spilled from a leaky pipe outside Williston, polluting a tributary of the Missouri River.  In July 2011, a pipeline serving a well in Bottineau County leaked over two million gallons of fracking wastewater, damaging twenty-four acres of private land.

Colorado: A contractor for a pipeline services firm gave a detailed account of sand-blasting pulverized waste buildup (called “scale”) from pipeline seals directly into the air outdoors without a filter, even though such dust can be radioactive and cause damage to lungs.

Across the Marcellus region: Over the past several years, landfills in states around the Marcellus shale formation — even in New York, where fracking is prohibited — have experienced increasing shipments of drill cuttings that contain high levels of radiation.  Many of the landfills do not test for radiation and do not have adequate controls to prevent the often toxic and radioactive “leachate” from seeping into groundwater.

“Improper handling of drilling waste threatens the health and safety of 3.5 million Pennsylvania residents whose drinking water comes from private wells,” said Barbara Jarmoska, who serves on the board of directors of the Responsible Drilling Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.  “It is past time for the EPA to put public and environmental health and safety first. EPA should revise existing regulations and specifically address issues relevant to the modern oil and gas industry.”

If EPA does not act within 60 days of today’s notice letter, the groups intend to ask a federal court to set strict deadlines for EPA to complete this long-needed update and strengthening of its regulations for oil and gas wastes.

The EPA, in its emailed response to WiG after the coalition’s announcement, provided background information and said last spring the agency “proposed pretreatment standards that would require zero discharge of pollutants from unconventional oil and natural gas extraction facilities into municipal wastewater treatment plants.”

In addition, the EPA said it tasked the Underground Injection Control National Technical Workgroup with the development of recommendations to assist UIC directors with management and mitigation of the potential effects of induced seismicity under the Class II regulations. 

The EPA statement said: UIC program directors have the authority and discretion within the UIC Class II regulations to address induced seismicity where needed. For Class II oil and gas wastewater disposal wells, existing regulations provide state and federal permit writers with broad discretionary authority to include conditions and requirements in permits to address induced seismicity, where they find that seismicity could cause migration of fluids into an underground source of drinking water.  Existing regulations for UIC Class I hazardous waste wells and Class VI wells include explicit requirements related to seismicity.

States are using this authority to address concerns with induced seismicity. In 2012, Ohio developed UIC regulations to help mitigate concerns with injection induced seismicity.  Other states, including Oklahoma and Kansas, have taken steps to shut in wells that were believed to be contributing to induced seismicity, according to the EPA.

The agency said it will continue to work with the states and organizations such as the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission “to ensure that the latest information and tools are made available to UIC directors to address potential concerns related to injection-induced seismicity.”

Six Flags wants to clear trees for solar farm

Environmental groups have filed suit over a New Jersey theme park’s plans to cut nearly 19,000 trees to build a 90-acre solar farm.

The groups claim Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, is violating the state’s municipal land use law. They say the plan would be harmful to the Barnegat Bay watershed.

The groups say the amusement park’s parking lot and buildings would be a more appropriate location for a solar farm.

In a statement, Janet Tauro of Clean Water Action said it’s illogical to destroy the forest to combat climate change.

“Great Adventure’s position that it must destroy the forest to combat climate change is illogical and uninformed,” Janet Tauro, New Jersey board chair of Clean Water Action, said in a prepared statement.

“You don’t kill the earth to save the earth. If a Jackson resident takes down a tree in their own backyard, they have to jump through hoops as the tree removal ordinance is so stringent,” she added, “but Great Adventure plans to clear cut 18,000 trees and the application flies through like greased lightning.”

Six Flags has said the facility would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 24 times what the undisturbed forest is capable of removing on its own. It has also pledged to replant nearly 26,000 trees.

Environmental groups seek federal action to clean up Kewaunee County groundwater

Six environmental groups are seeking federal action on longstanding groundwater contamination issues in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, where roughly 30 percent of tested wells are compromised by bacteria, high nitrate levels, or both.

“Everyone deserves safe, clean and reliable drinking water, but Kewaunee County residents gamble with their health simply by turning on the faucets in their homes,” Elizabeth Wheeler, staff attorney with Clean Wisconsin, said in a news release issued on Oct. 22. “We’re seeking federal action to help create a long-term solution to what’s unfortunately been a long-term problem for thousands of people in the area.”

Clean Wisconsin, Environmental Integrity Project, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Midwest Environmental Defense Center, Kewaunee CARES and the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin have jointly filed a petition for emergency action detailing the need for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exercise its emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That law empowers the EPA to step in to provide safe drinking water in an area where contamination poses serious public health threats.

The petitioners — the environmental groups — are asking the EPA to investigate the source of contamination and initiate enforcement actions against polluters that should be held accountable. The request builds upon ongoing local efforts including the recent 20-0 Kewaunee County Board of Supervisors vote seeking to limit winter manure spreading in the areas most susceptible to groundwater pollution.

“Kewaunee County has for too long been the canary in the coalmine with unchecked contamination in our soils and water, threatening our homes, health and future,” stated Lynn Utesch, a farmer and member of Kewaunee CARES. “The time has come for action, as we’ve hit a state of emergency plaguing our community and threatening human health.”

Portions of Kewaunee County are especially susceptible to groundwater pollution because they have shallow soils overlaying fractured carbonate bedrock, resulting in the rapid movement of contaminants, including bacteria and nitrates, according to Clean Wisconsin. Even a single exposure to salmonella or campylobacter jejuni which has been found in some of Kewaunee County’s wells, has been known to cause serious illness or death. High nitrate levels pose significant risks to children and pregnant women including blue baby syndrome, a life-threatening condition that limits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain.

“It’s a very disturbing trend to see groundwater contamination continue to rise as the state fails to act,” said Dean Hoegger of the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin. “We need the EPA to step in to protect the citizens of Kewaunee County and other karst regions.”

In the request filed on Oct. 22, the EPA is asked to investigate pollutants in Kewaunee’s drinking water to pinpoint safety concerns, create a monitoring system and determine what can be done for sufficient management standards to protect against future contamination. Similar EPA action was taken to help manage nitrates in the groundwater of the Lower Yakima Valley in Washington State in 2012.

“Clean groundwater is essential to the health and welfare of citizens who rely on it for drinking water,” stated Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a national organization that provides legal support to grassroots efforts fighting pollution. “EPA must hold polluters accountable for cleaning up Kewaunee County’s drinking water, as it has in other states.”

Despite well-documented pollution, including a comprehensive task force report conducted in 2007, Kewaunee County’s groundwater issues have been largely untouched by local and state officials.

Agriculture is not the sole cause of the contamination but is a major contributor, and intensive agricultural practices are on the rise in Kewaunee County, which has the highest concentration of large livestock confinements of any county in the state. Records show that the animals on Kewaunee’s largest farms, combined, produce the biological waste equivalent of 900,000 humans annually, about nine times the size of the population of the city of Green Bay. Nearly 340 million gallons of liquid manure and more than 81 tons of solid manure is spread annually throughout the county. Kewaunee County farmers own and manage 175,449 acres, or 80 percent, of the county’s land.

On the web…

The petition and supporting documents can be found at www.cleanwisconsin.org/kewaunee-safe-drinking-water

Jefferson County board adopts resolution opposing tar sands project

The Jefferson County Board on May 13 voted 27-2 for a resolution urging the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to reject the air permit for a proposed tar sands pipeline expansion and undertake a full environmental assessment first.

“As supervisors, we were just doing our job last night. Jefferson County residents recognized a threat to their environment, their resources, and their quality of life and stepped up and asked us to protect them. There was no doubt how we should proceed. We were just doing our job ensuring these residents have a voice in the process,” said Walter Christensen, the supervisor who introduced the resolution.

Enbridge Energy has proposed an expansion of its Line 61 tar sands pipeline that travels through Wisconsin from Superior to Flanagan Illinois, from 400,000 barrels per day to eventually 1.2 million bpd.

The Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter and Madison 350 said this is an almost unprecedented amount.

Also, the groups, in a news release issued after the board’s vote, said Enbridge has a dismal safety record, with about 800 pipeline-related incidents since 1999. Most notoriously, Enbridge is known for the largest tar sands oil spill in history, when a pipeline ruptured and spilled 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil into a wetland that leaked into the Kalamazoo River during a planned shutdown in 2010.

Four years later, the spill still has not been successfully cleaned up, despite an expenditure in excess of $1 billion.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered another dredging of the river. The spill was the result of a failure in a pipe with a flow-rate one-sixth of the Line 61 proposal that runs through Jefferson County, according to the environmental groups.

“Tar sands oil is very different from traditional ‘light’ oil, making the potential for a spill and the concerns worse,” said Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator for the John Muir chapter. “Tar sands oil is incredibly dense, so if there is a contamination in a waterway, it does not float, making cleanup much more difficult. Additionally, it must be mixed with a caustic chemical compound to move it through pipelines, which the likelihood of a rupture.”

The only public hearing held regarding the proposed expansion was on May 5 in Superior.

“This pipeline and its expansion jeopardize Lake Superior, other lakes, rivers, and waterways along the route,” said Ward. “The potential problems with this expansion could present more risk than Wisconsin citizens are willing to bear for tar sands oil.  We hope the DNR listens to the request for a full study and more hearings so they can determine whether we’re willing to accept that risk.”

Obama administration delays decision on Keystone XL

The U.S. Department of State notified eight federal agencies that it will provide more time for the submission of their views on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project.

Agencies, according to the State Department announcement, need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the on-going litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court, which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state.

State said it would use the extended period to “review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7.”

The agency consultation process is not starting over.

The process is ongoing, and the State Department and other agencies are continuing to work in assessing the permit application.

The permit process will conclude “once factors that have a significant impact on determining the national interest of the proposed project have been evaluated and appropriately reflected in the decision documents,” according to the announcement.

A permit is needed for the pipeline because it would cross the U.S. border from Canada.

The announcement trigged a flood of comments, especially from the environmental community, which has been fighting the proposal through litigation, petitions and demonstrations. 

Ross Hammond, senior campaigner for the climate and energy program at Friends of the Earth, said, “This decision shows the power of the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline by the people of Nebraska and activists all across the country.”

He continued, “Whether President Obama makes a decision on the pipeline next month or next year, Keystone XL clearly fails the president’s climate test. This delay shows that TransCanada will not succeed in bullying their way to approval, bypassing established democratic procedures. Further analysis will only confirm how risky this pipeline is to the health of the American economy, environment, people, and our climate.”

CREDO, a national progressive group working to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, also responded.

After expressing disappointment that the administration hasn’t rejected the permit application for the pipeline, Elijah Zarlin, CREDO’s senior campaign manager, said, “Still, this is yet another defeat for TransCanada, tar sands developers like the Koch Brothers, and oil-soaked politicians. No doubt, the nearly 100,000 people who have pledged to risk arrest to stop Keystone XL played a key role in pushing the administration to more accurately consider the full impact of this project — which must clearly result in rejection. No delays will diminish our commitment to stopping Keystone XL.”

And at 350.org, co-founder Bill McKibben also expressed disappointment that the administration continues to consider the issue instead of deny the permit: “It’s as if our leaders simply don’t understand that climate change is happening in real time — that it would require strong, fast action to do anything about it. While we’re at it, the State Department should also request that physics delay heat-trapping operations for a while, and that the El Nino scheduled for later this spring be pushed back to after the midterms. One point is clear: without a broad and brave movement, DC would have permitted this dumb pipeline in 2011. So on we go.”