Tag Archives: environmentalists

Animal rights group to monitor Wisconsin bear hunters despite new law

An animal rights  group plans to monitor bear hunters in Wisconsin in the first test of the state’s new hunter harassment law.

Rod Coronado, the founder of group Wolf Patrol, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that members will document bear hunting activity in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

“Our goal is to help law enforcement and record illegal activity,” Coronado said. “Our goal isn’t to harass hunters, but we won’t hesitate to exercise our constitutional rights.”

This year’s bear hunting season is the first to include increased protections for hunters, anglers and trappers under legislation signed in April by Gov. Scott Walker. Starting Wednesday, hunters are allowed to use dogs to hunt bears.

Coronado said the “Right to Hunt Act” impinges on the rights of non-hunting citizens to engage with the public land. He said he believes the law would be deemed unconstitutional if challenged in court.

“A bear hunter’s right isn’t greater than any other person’s right,” Coronado said. “We have as much right to be in the public forest as they do.”

Wisconsin Bear Hunters’ Association president Carl Schoettel said the law will make it easier to enforce harassment by Wolf Patrol and cut back on dangerous encounters.

“We are against anything they try to do to prevent constitutionally protected hunting activity,” Schoettel said.

The law expands protections to hunters during training, scouting and baiting activities. It prohibits actions such as remaining in a hunter’s sight to obstruct and photographing, recording or confronting a hunter more than twice with the intention to interfere.

Department of Natural Resources chief warden Todd Schaller said first offenses are a civil citation with a fine up to $500. If a person violates the law two or more times within five years, he or she would face a maximum fine of $10,000 and a sentence of up to nine months

 

Audit: Wisconsin failing to monitor wastewater

A state audit found Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources lax in monitoring large livestock farms, as well as municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants.

The DNR permits about 1,250 municipal wastewater treatment plants, industrial wastewater treatment facilities and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). It’s required to make sure those entities comply with permit terms, but the audit found the DNR didn’t consistently follow its own rules and at times violated statutory requirements.

The Legislative Audit Bureau report released June 3 found the DNR only issued notices of violation for 33 out of the 558 instances they should have over the past decade.

“This really basic and fundamental function of the DNR, it’s not working right now,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, a senior staff attorney at the environmental group Clean Wisconsin.

The audit also found staff hasn’t been electronically recording submissions of annual reports required of CAFOs.

Staff indicated they also don’t have time to thoroughly review each annual report, meaning instances of noncompliance could be slipping through the cracks.

“I’m troubled and I’m concerned,” said Legislative Audit Committee Co-Chair Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay. “As somebody that’s a strong advocate of clean water, I want to see a comprehensive program and not have a bunch of holes in it.”

DNR spokesman James Dick said the agency often uses methods other than violation notices to obtain compliance, such as discussing violations, even though DNR policy called for violation notices in all 558 cases in the audit.

Wheeler said if permit holders see there are no real teeth to enforcement, they have little incentive to comply, leading to further water pollution across the state.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp wrote in her response to the audit that the department has recognized many of the issues identified and has already established systems to address them — or is in the process of doing so.

Stepp, a former Republican state senator and close ally of Gov. Scott Walker, was an outspoken critic of the DNR before he put her in charge of it.

Cowles said the audit verifies there’s a staffing problem for permits and inspections, but he said it’s unclear whether that stems from cuts to the DNR that Walker included in the 2015–17 budget. A spokesman for Walker declined to comment.

Cowles said he’s asking the audit bureau to determine what funding would be necessary to supplement the DNR’s wastewater permitting staff and program operations. The committee is also asking the DNR for follow-up reports on many of the issues by Nov. 1.

“This is going to be one of those things that’s going to take a while,” Cowles said.

MISSING VIOLATIONS?

Of the 260 CAFOs for which permits were reissued from 2006 to 2014, 17 were inspected after the permit was reissued instead of before, violating statutory requirements.

Another 51 were inspected more than 12 months before their permit expired, which is too far ahead because conditions on the farm can change. Dick said of the 17 permitted before inspection, the DNR has found records documenting substantial compliance before the reissuance for 15 of the 17 and believes the remaining two were in substantial compliance as well.

The audit also found staff only electronically recorded 36 of 1,900 annual reports required of CAFOs from 2005 through 2014. Staff said they didn’t record submissions because of a lack of time. They also said they don’t have time to thoroughly review each annual report, meaning instances of noncompliance could be overlooked.

Wisconsin Dairy Business Association government affairs director John Holevoet said just because staffing is an issue doesn’t mean DNR is missing violations. He pointed to the audit’s finding that the percentage of CAFOs being inspected twice every five years has increased from 20 percent in 2005 to 2009 to 48 percent in 2010 to 2014.

“I think there are some signs again that they’re doing a better job than in the past,” Holevoet said.

The recent audit is not the only documentation of the DNR’s problems.

In July 2011, the department received a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifying 75 issues with state law and administrative rules. Stepp wrote the department has resolved 38 issues and efforts are underway to address 31 others.

Paul Zimmerman, executive director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said the organization wants the DNR to be successful with its program because it would much rather have the state agency issue permits than have the EPA step in.

 

Exxon admits climate change, rejects resolutions

Exxon Mobil and Chevron shareholders rejected resolutions to take stronger stands to limit climate change. But some y environmentalist-backed ideas gained considerable support.

At Chevron Corp., a resolution asking for an annual report each year on how climate-change policies will affect the company received 41 percent of the vote. A similar resolution at Exxon got 38 percent.

Also, Exxon Mobil Corp. shareholders voted to ask directors to adopt a proxy-access rule, which would make it easier for shareholders to propose their own board candidates. Backers including the New York City comptroller said it could result in the election of independent directors who could help the company address risks like climate change.

The meetings last week — Exxon’s in Dallas, Chevron’s in San Ramon, California — came as the companies are trying to dig out from the collapse in crude prices that began in mid-2014. Exxon earned $16.15 billion last year, its smallest profit since 2002. Chevron’s annual profit plunged 76 percent to $4.59 billion and included the company’s first money-losing quarter since 2002.

Crude prices have rebounded since February, boosting the shares of the top two U.S. oil companies, but they remain about half of what they were at their last peak.

Exxon is also dealing with investigations by officials in several states into what the company knew and allegedly didn’t disclose about oil’s role in climate change.

Exxon Mobil and Chevron shareholders rejected resolutions to take stronger stands to limit climate change, but some ideas gained strength.

Patricia Daley, a Dominican sister from New Jersey and sponsor of one of the resolutions, said Exxon lacked “moral leadership.”

“Our company has chosen to disregard the consensus of the scientific community, the will of the 195 nations that signed the Paris agreement,” religious leaders and even other oil companies, Daley said.

Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson said his company has long recognized that climate change is a serious risk and might require action. But, he said, any policies should be implemented evenly across the world, allow market prices to pick solutions, and be flexible enough to respond to economic ups and downs and “breakthroughs in climate science.”

Exxon forecasts that oil and gas will make up 60 percent of the world’s energy supply in 2040 — about the same share it holds today. Its CEO said the company was balancing the need to produce more energy for growing world demand with environmental considerations.

Tillerson said there is no alternative source that can replace the ubiquity of fossil fuels. He expressed confidence that technology will provide the key to limiting carbon emissions.

“We’ve got to have some technological breakthroughs,” he said, “but until we achieve those, to just say turn the taps off is not acceptable to humanity,” he said.

The shareholders responded with robust applause.

Across the street from the meeting hall, about 60 protesters gathered and urged large shareholders such as pension funds to divest their shares. Many held signs with slogans such as “Exxon Liar Liar Earth on Fire.” The mood was sedate, however, perhaps owing to the warm, muggy weather.

Exxon shares rose 59 cents to $90.26, and Chevron shares gained $1.60 to $101.79.

GOP puts business, not science, in control of state’s water

Wisconsin’s expert environmental officials lack broad authority to regulate high-capacity wells, Attorney General Brad Schimel said this week in a formal opinion.

Schimel said, in effect, that business interests must trump any negative impacts on the state’s water supply in making decisions about high-capacity wells.

The attorney general’s opinion will dramatically reduce the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to oversee high-capacity wells, putting the state’s groundwater, lakes and streams at risk, conservationists predicted.

“It’s bad,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, senior attorney for Clean Wisconsin, which works to protect the state’s air and water. “It’s a huge step backward for groundwater protection compared to what we have now.”

The GOP and environmentalists have been quarreling for years over how much power the DNR has over high-capacity wells. The issue has grown more intense as more factory farms sink high-capacity wells to hydrate their herds and other farmers search for large-scale irrigation methods. Conservationists say the wells are depleting groundwater, lakes and streams, particularly in the state’s central sands region.

According to the DNR’s website, the agency currently reviews each high-capacity well application to see if the well, combined with other wells in that area, will adversely affect the state’s waters. If the agency determines the wells’ cumulative impact would be harmful, it can impose conditions on the well or deny the application.

A state appeals court ruled in 2010 that the DNR could take that approach, finding the agency has broad authority to regulate high-capacity wells and impose permit conditions. That decision prompted Republican legislators to pass a law in 2011 prohibiting agencies from imposing permit conditions that aren’t spelled out in statute.

The state Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling later that same year, finding the DNR has general authority to police high-capacity wells. The high court didn’t consider the new law, because it didn’t become final until after oral arguments were complete.

Assembly Republicans have complained the DNR’s approach is too burdensome for businesses and has resulted in a backlog of applications. Looking to clear the path for applicants, they asked Schimel for a formal opinion in February on whether anything grants the DNR authority to go beyond its statutory powers.

Schimel, a Republican, wrote the responsibility for protecting the state’s waters lies with the Legislature, not the DNR. The Supreme Court didn’t consider the new law because it took effect after the justices handed down their decision, he said. Therefore, the new law takes precedence.

That means the DNR can’t impose well-monitoring conditions or consider the cumulative impact wells are having on an area’s water levels, the attorney general said.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who controls the DNR, is notorious for what environmentalists call his attacks on the state’s natural resources. He invariably prioritizes the needs of large corporations over conservation and environmental damage.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, issued a statement calling Schimel’s opinion “a victory for the people of Wisconsin.”

Louis Weisberg contributed to this report.

 

Crisis continues 5 years after Fukushima meltdowns

The massive earthquake struck offshore, triggering a devastating tsunami. Thousands died in the disaster and three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant went into meltdown, exposing some 32 million people to radioactive fallout.

“There is no end in sight for communities in Fukushima,” said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan. “What started as a natural disaster turned into one of the worst industrial accidents in human history and a reminder that humanity must urgently turn its efforts toward safe, clean renewables.”

Five years after the fires and explosions, some 100,000 people remain displaced, decontamination is far from complete, cleanup costs ballooned to $118 billion, the amount of radioactive waste and water builds with no solution for disposal and health studies show an alarming spike in thyroid cancer among Fukushima’s children.

The nuclear disaster compromised food supplies and affected flora, fauna and especially fisheries in Fukushima Bay, where contaminated water continues to flow.

The plant will never return to operation and decontamination seems nearly impossible — radiation levels are too high to enter the reactor housing. Radiation is even killing the robots built for the dirty work.

What has been learned at Fukushima?

“Although the probability of nuclear accidents is thought to be very low, the consequences are extraordinary and devastatingly high,” University of Chicago professor Kennette Benedict recently wrote in an essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “The disruption to individual health, to families, to communities, to energy supplies, to economies and to societies has long-lasting effects.”

In Japan, 53 percent of citizens oppose the resumption of the country’s nuclear energy program.

A slightly larger percentage is registering opposition to nuclear power in the United States, even as the U.S. government and Wisconsin Legislature move to encourage an expansion of nuclear energy.

In Wisconsin

Six years ago, on the 24th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, Wisconsin residents celebrated the defeat of a Republican effort to repeal what’s called the “nuclear moratorium law.”

The law actually did not create a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants. Instead it required that any proposed nuke plant be economical for ratepayers and have a permanent storage site for spent nuclear fuel and other waste.

Environmentalists, after turning back a repeal, claimed a victory six years ago. Not so this year.

The Legislature has sent Gov. Scott Walker another repeal bill intended to ease the path to constructing nuclear plants.

And Walker is likely to sign the measure, which predictably has strong support from business and labor and strong opposition from environmental groups.

The legislation will remove the requirement that new nuclear power plants have a plan for storing and disposing of their waste, according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, part of the coalition that rallied against the bill.

Additionally, the legislation will add nuclear energy to the list of preferred energy options in the state, even though Wisconsin’s Energy Priorities Law was intended to promote the cleanest and cheapest forms of energy.

The legislative effort had some small support in the environmental community, but largely was opposed by activists who encouraged lawmakers to focus instead on wind, solar and geothermal energy.

These environmentalists also warned passage of the bill could lead to the state becoming a depository for nuclear waste.

A letter to lawmakers from the Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free Coalition stated, “In the 1980s, the Department of Energy ranked Wisconsin’s Wolf River Batholith as No. 2 for a second high-level nuclear waste repository. A 2008 DOE Study on the Need for a Second Repository listed Wisconsin as one of the top potential states based on our granite geology. After the cancellation of the potential Yucca Mountain repository [in Nevada], the DOE is desperate to find an alternative.” Signatories included representatives of Clean Wisconsin, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter.

Anti-nuke sentiment growing

The Sierra Club is unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy. The organization’s nuclear-free future statement says, “Although nuclear plants have been in operation for less than 60 years, we now have seen three serious disasters,” referring to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. “Nuclear is no solution to climate change and every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable and renewable energy sources.”

The Sierra Club’s nuclear-free campaign emphasizes:

• What to do with the long-lived waste remains unresolved.

• Uranium mining has contaminated large sections of the southwestern United States and other areas in the world.

• Almost all older plants leak tritium and other radionuclides into groundwater.

• Nuclear power has a huge carbon footprint due to energy needs in uranium mining, milling, processing, conversion and enrichment, formulation of fuel rods and construction of plants.

A new Gallup Poll indicates that 54 percent of Americans are on Sierra’s side.

Gallup began asking about nuclear energy in 1994 but not until this poll has a majority opposed nuclear power.

Gallup found Republicans more likely to favor nuclear power than Democrats or independents, but support is down all around.

Gallup, in its analysis, suggested the drop in support had more to do with relatively low gasoline prices than fear of a nuclear accident.

Yet environmental leaders say people should be afraid — as the impact of a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster cannot ever be fully mitigated.

“All of Fukushima’s lessons warn against a nuclear industry that protects its profit margins over public safety margins,” said Paul Gunter of the nonprofit Beyond Nuclear.

Forever in Fukushima?

Greenpeace, in mid-March, released Radiation Reloaded, a report on the ecological impact in Fukushima that documented:

• High radiation concentrations in new leaves on cedars.

• Mutations of fir trees with rising radiation levels.

• Heritable mutations in pale blue grass butterfly populations.

• DNA-damaged worms in highly concentrated areas.

• Apparent reduced fertility in barn swallows.

• Decreased abundance of 57 bird species with higher radiation levels.

• High levels of cesium contamination in freshwater fish.

• Radiological contamination of coastal estuaries.

“For the foreseeable future, Fukushima-contaminated ecosystems will continue to be radiation loaded. And reloaded,” the Greenpeace report stated, noting how man-made radioactive elements are taken up by plants and animals, cycled and recycled.

The findings were based on 25 radiological investigations in Fukushima and independent research in the area.

Greenpeace also drew from research into the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.

“The government’s massive decontamination program will have almost no impact on reducing the ecological threat from the enormous amount of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” said Kendra Ulrich, senior nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace Japan. “Already, over 9 million cubic meters of nuclear waste are scattered over at least 113,000 locations across Fukushima prefecture.”

Benedict, the University of Chicago professor, summarized the nuclear power dilemma: “The products of nuclear fission, including melted fuel as well as other radiation-contaminated materials, will require continuous care and storage for tens of thousands of years. The question is whether any society has the capacity to safely deal with this fire that will not go out.”

Fukushima, then and now

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami sent the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan into multiple meltdowns and exploded containment buildings.

A look at the disaster and recovery:

• 164,865: Fukushima residents who fled their homes after the catastrophe.

• 97,320: Number of residents who haven’t returned.

• 53: Percent of Japanese citizens who oppose the restarting of nuclear power plants in the country.

• 760,000: Metric tons of contaminated water stored at the Fukushima plant.

• 10.7 million: Number of 1-ton bags containing radioactive debris and other waste collected from outside the plant.

• 33,000 workers: Decommissioning and decontaminating outside the plant.

— AP

Administration insists Supreme Court order on clean-power won’t impact Paris agreement

The Obama administration asserted this week that a U.S. Supreme Court order delaying enforcement of its new clean-power rules will ultimately have little impact on meeting the nation’s obligations under the recent Paris climate agreement.

But environmentalists and academic experts are more nervous.

They are concerned that any significant pause in implementing mandated reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants will imperil the credibility of the Unites States to lead on climate change, while increasing worries both at home and abroad that the whole international agreement might unravel if a Republican wins the White House in November.

Nearly 200 countries agreed in December to cut or limit heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the first global treaty to try to limit the worst predicted impacts of climate change. The goal is to limit warming to no more than an additional 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Each nation set its own goals under the treaty, and President Barack Obama committed the United States to make a 26 to 28 percent cut in U.S. emissions by 2030.

The Clean Power Plan is seen as essential to meeting that goal, requiring a one-third reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants over the next 15 years. Even before the Environmental Protection Agency released the plan last year, a long list of mostly Republican states that are economically dependent on coal mining and oil production announced they would sue.

Though the case is still pending before an appeals court in Washington, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court issued a surprising order on Feb. 9 barring any enforcement of the plan until the legal challenge is resolved. Whichever side loses at the appeals level is almost certain to petition for review by the high court, almost certainly freezing any significant action on the plan’s goals until after Obama’s term expires in January 2017.

“The court’s stay, although procedural, clearly signals trouble for the clean power plan,” said John Sterman, an MIT professor who created an intricate computer model that simulates the effects of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions on global warming. “Without serious policies to promote efficiency, renewables, and low-carbon energy, there is little chance the U.S. will be able to meet its emissions-reduction pledge, undermining the willingness of many other nations to meet their commitments.”

Obama has staked much of his second term on building a legacy on climate change surpassing that of any of his predecessors. Climate change now joins immigration atop the list of top Obama priorities delayed indefinitely by the courts.

Even if the justices ultimately uphold the Clean Power Plan, GOP leaders in Congress have vowed to wipe the rules away if a Republican wins November’s presidential election. That raises the specter that the U.S., the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, might also withdraw from the Paris treaty.

“President Obama’s credibility on the climate issue was crucial to reaching agreement at Paris,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University professor of geosciences and international affairs. “The entire edifice built at Paris could collapse, much as the Kyoto Protocol was seriously undermined by President George W. Bush’s withdrawal of the U.S. from that agreement.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Feb. 10 that leaders in the countries participating in the agreement understand that the rulemaking process in the U.S. is often complicated and litigious. But, in the end, he said this week’s setback from the Supreme Court is just a “temporary, procedural determination.”

Schultz said the U.S. would continue to take aggressive steps to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, citing other regulations it has put in place to reduce emissions from automobiles, airplanes and the oil and gas sector. He said the extensions of solar and wind tax credits in this year’s budget will be critical in helping the U.S. meet its commitments.

“It is our estimation that the inclusion of those tax credits is going to have more impact over the short term than the Clean Power Plan,” Schultz said aboard Air Force One on Feb. 10 as the president was flying to Springfield, Illinois.

White House officials said they expected the courts to move quickly on the case, which will benefit the administration’s efforts.

Compliance with the new emissions rules isn’t required until 2022, but states must submit their detailed plans for meeting the required reductions to the EPA by September or seek an extension.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, whose coal-dependent state is helping lead the lawsuit against Obama’s plan, suggested Feb. 10 that taking any steps to meet the required emissions reductions before the final legal decision would be a waste of time and money.

He said for him, opposition to the emissions limits has “nothing to do with climate change.” Rather, it’s about protecting coal-mining jobs already endangered by competition from plentiful stores of cheap natural gas unleashed by the shale fracking boom.

“This rule represents a radical transformation of American energy policy and will have a sweeping impact on the American way of life,” Morrisey said. “EPA is seeking to transform itself from being an environmental regulator into a central energy-planning authority for the states.”

As the legal logjam over the plan plays out in the courts, however, some environmentalists are putting their hopes in the free market _ that the rapidly falling costs of solar and wind infrastructure will boost investments in clean energy, even in an era of historically cheap fossil fuels.

“The transition to clean, renewable energy is rapidly becoming unstoppable,” former vice president and climate crusader Al Gore said Feb. 10. 

Big gulp: GOP advances water privatization

“Aqua America” sounds like a water park on the shore of a great lake.

Rather, Aqua America is the second-largest publicly traded water utility company in the United States, and some day the company — or Veolia or Suez — could take control of municipal water systems in Wisconsin. 

Republican lawmakers fast-tracked AB 554/SB 432, legislation that would diminish public influence and make it easier to privatize local water supplies.

Environmentalists in the state call the measure the “Water Privatization Bill.” The Assembly approved AB 554 on Jan. 12. A Senate floor vote had not been held as WiG went to press on Feb. 10.

Current state law allows for the privatization of systems provided citizens have a say.

The process currently works like this: A municipality must adopt an ordinance authorizing privatization, then secure approval from the state Public Service Commission and then put the proposal to the voters in a referendum.

In 2008 and 2009, Milwaukee officials considered privatizing the city’s water. A coalition of community leaders, environmental groups and unions — KPOW/Keep Public Our Water — fought the plan, which would have privatized Milwaukee’s water system for up to a century.

The new privatization bill puts the burden of bringing a referendum on citizens. A municipality would adopt an ordinance but a referendum wouldn’t be held unless citizens wage a successful petition drive. And, with no referendum, the PSC would approve privatization.

Democratic lawmakers worked through January to counter the measure and try to improve the bill. In a Senate committee vote in January, Sens. Chris Larson and Julie Lassa offered several unsuccessful amendments that would have reserved some control for local citizens.

Larson, in early February, also was working with Reps. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, and Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, to advance a measure — LRB 4602/1 — intended to keep water and sewer utilities under local control.

“I am appalled that my colleagues across the aisle are trying to take Wisconsin down the dangerous path of privatizing water,” Brostoff said. “A one-time privatization scheme payoff pales in comparison to risking our public safety.”

Pushing privatization

Most Americans get their household water from publicly owned and operated service. 

The polls show most Americans want to keep these services and, in Wisconsin, there’s been no public outcry from city and county officials for legislative change.

“As a member of the Assembly Committee on Energy Utilities, I did not hear testimony from any municipal leader asking for expanding the ability of corporations to take over their water,” Stuck said. “Instead, what we heard was a desire to keep control of these vital utilities local, so that decisions about how to keep a cost-effective and safe water supply are made by the local community and not by the profit-seeking shareholders of private companies.”

So, what’s driving a legislative push for privatization?

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported in late January that AB 554, authored by Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, and SB 432, written by Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, is akin to draft legislation — the Water/Wastewater Utility Public-Private Partnership Act — circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC is a special interest group of businesses and politicians that has advanced a series of anti-immigrant, anti-voter, anti-choice and anti-environment measures. Much of ALEC’s funding comes from trade groups, corporations such as Exxon Mobil and right-wing organizations like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

Proponents argue privatization is a solution for municipalities burdened by capital improvements to systems that have been under-funded due to years of deflated rates.

They also maintain that water utilities are businesses and companies can serve consumers better than government.

Some proponents of privatization illustrate their arguments by pointing to the water crisis in Michigan, where officials at nearly every level of government failed the people of Flint.

Those arguments, however, unleash a flood of opposing positions from those who see the cost-cutting profit motive as the underlying cause of the Flint crisis.

“The residents of Flint were stripped of their democratically elected authority and, in the name of saving a few dollars, have been forced to sacrifice their health in the process,” said the Rev. Allen Overton of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, part of a coalition seeking federal court intervention to secure safe water in Flint. “The community deserves accountability, transparency and justice, in addition to water that is safe to drink.”

Opposing privatization

“Government has a level of accountability to citizens that private companies do not,” stated Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. 

She continued, “Think about when you have a problem with your phone service. You typically spend hours being passed from faceless person to computer system and back to another faceless person who could be anywhere in the world. Sometimes it takes days, weeks or more to solve the problem.

“Now imagine that water starts coming out of your tap brown, your family starts getting sick and you have to attempt to get help from a faceless, out-of-state private corporation that has no accountability to you or other voters living in the community. It’s bad enough running into this lack of responsiveness when you’re talking about a phone plan. The health of your family is certainly more important than phone service, and we should treat it that way.”

The league is on record as opposing the privatization bill, as are other leading environmental, consumer and good-government groups in the state. Opponents include the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Clean Wisconsin, the state Sierra Club, Midwest Environmental Advocates and Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

“Not just across the country, but across the entire globe, water privatization has failed to increase the access to or quality of water supplies for communities time and time again,” read a statement from Milwaukee Riverkeeper intended to motivate members to urge their senators to reject the privatization bill. 

These groups take the position that access to water is a right and water should not be a source of windfall profits. They, and national watchdog organizations, such as Food and Water Watch and Public Citizen, offer these arguments against privatization:

• Privatization leads to rate increases because corporations seek to maximize profits for investors.

Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water, according to Food and Water Watch.

After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.

• Privatization undermines water quality, because the motivation for companies is profit, not public good. Aqua America, headquartered in Pennsylvania, took in $769 million in revenues in 2013 for a $221 million profit. The company’s CEO received $3.2 million in compensation that year.

• Privatization reduces public rights and allows the local government to abdicate control over a public resource.

• Private financing costs more than public financing.

• Privatization leads to job losses as companies minimize costs to increase profits. Food and Water Watch, which opposes any commodification of water, said privatization typically leads to a loss of one in three water jobs.

• Privatization contributes to corruption because companies can restrict public access to information.

• Privatization can contribute to sprawl because companies are motivated to expand infrastructure and extend services.

• Privatization could lead to bulk water exports or changes in water use, including sales to the oil and gas industry for hydraulic fracturing.

• Privatization is difficult to reverse.

The crisis in Flint prompted people across the nation to focus on the quality of the water that comes out of their tap and the management of their utility.

There’s also a global big-picture to consider: The World Bank predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will run short of fresh drinking water. 

Wisconsin will not run short of drinking water by 2025, but who or what will control how much water costs — or where it goes?

Dear future: Answering a national call for letters on climate change

The Paris Climate Project has launched “Letters to the Future,” a national effort to encourage authors, scientists, artists, activists and citizens to write letters about climate change to six generations hence.

The letters will be presented to U.S. delegates and others attending the Paris Climate Talks in December.

“‘Letters to the Future’ invites everyone, young and old, to write their future offspring, community, friends — what was it like to be alive when this most consequential summit on climate change occurred? … What do you wish to say, from your heart or your head, to those who weren’t yet here to speak for themselves, as you are?” Welsh notes.

Letter writers to date include Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists Jane Smiley and Geraldine Brooks; Penn/Faulkner award-winner T.C. Boyle; 350.org founder Bill McKibben; U.S. Sen. Harry Reid; Hugo award-winner Kim Stanley Robinson; activist-journalist Michael Pollan; former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson.

And this is just the beginning: People from all walks of life are encouraged to submit a letter and join the conversation. 

The project was envisioned and organized by Melinda Welsh, founding editor of the Sacramento News & Review. Other partners in the project include the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and many member newspapers, including the Wisconsin Gazette. The project also involves the Media Consortium, a network of leading progressive media outlets, such as Mother Jones, Grist, The Nation, Texas Observer and Democracy Now. 

Letters — 400 words in length along with author photos — can be submitted to www.letterstothefuture.org by Nov. 13 in order to be considered for publication in WiG and other newspapers and magazines, in mid-November — before the Paris Climate Talks begin. All letters will be published online. 

On the Web …

To participate in the project, go to www.letterstothefuture.org. And please, also share your letter directly with WiG.

Email Lisa Neff at

WiG will publish letters in print editions in November and online at www.wisconsingazette.com.

Court blocks use of insecticide believed to contribute to bees’ disappearance

A federal appeals court has blocked the use of a pesticide over concerns about its effect on honey bees, which have mysteriously disappeared across the country in recent years.

In her opinion, Judge Mary M. Schroeder, one of three judges who sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel, wrote that the Environmental Protection Agency had initially decided to conditionally approve the chemical — sulfoxaflor  — but ordered more studies to better understand the effects of the systemic insecticide on bees.

“A few months later, however, the EPA unconditionally registered the insecticides with certain mitigation measures and a lowering of the maximum application rate,” Schroeder wrote. “It did so without obtaining any further studies.”

“Given the precariousness of bee populations, leaving the EPA’s registration of sulfoxaflor in place risks more potential environmental harm than vacating it,” she added.

“Because the EPA’s decision to unconditionally register was based on flawed and limited data, we conclude that the unconditional approval was not supported by substantial evidence,” the court wrote.

The product, sold in the U.S. as Transform or Closer, must be pulled from store shelves by Oct. 18.

The judgment is a huge victory for environmentalists.

Sulfoxaflor belongs to a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids (NEE-OH-NIC-DUH-NIDES), according to the Ninth Circuit ruling. Neonicotinoids are suspected of being among several factors that have contributed to the collapse of honey bee colonies throughout the U.S.

Bees, especially honeybees, are needed to pollinate crops, and they are considered essential to the U.S. food supply.

But a disorder has caused as much as one-third of the nation’s bees to disappear each winter since 2006. A 2013 report issued by the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture cited a parasitic mite, multiple viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, genetics, habitat loss and pesticides as factors for the bees’ disappearance.

“We’re certainly extremely happy,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney with the group Earthjustice, which challenged the EPA’s approval of sulfoxaflor on behalf of groups in the beekeeping industry. “It means that sulfoxaflor comes off the market while the EPA does the work it should have done a long time ago.”

Loarie said the pesticide was used on cotton in southern states, but it had only been approved on an emergency basis for one crop in California.

Dane County gives up on requiring oil spill cleanup fund

Dane County officials have given up on trying to force Enbridge Energy to provide stronger financial assurances for a proper cleanup of a spill from the company’s crude oil pipeline across Wisconsin.

County zoning administrator Roger Lane told the Wisconsin State Journal that efforts to secure additional funding for cleanup are fruitless because of opposition from Republican state lawmakers.

Environmentalists want Dane County to require Canada-based Enbridge to establish a $25 million cleanup trust fund in case of a spill of tar sands oil. Earlier this summer, the climate group 350-Madison had petitioned the Dane County Zoning and Land Regulation Committee to rescind its April 21 conditional use permit for a tar sands oil pipeline pumping station near Marshall.

The pipeline, Line 61, is owned by the Canadian firm Enbridge Energy, which has one of the worst records for oil spills. Line 61 passes through the best agricultural land and across some of the most critical waterways in the United States as it runs from once-pristine forests in Alberta to the Texas coast for export. It carries tar sands oil, the extraction of which generates three to four times more greenhouse emissions than conventional oil.

The county zoning committee had granted a permit for Enbridge to build a pumping station on county agricultural land provided Enbridge met a guarantee of funds to clean up leaks over the pipeline’s lifetime. The committee required Enbridge to retain environmental clean-up insurance.

But earlier this summer, the Legislature added an amendment to the state budget barring counties from imposing insurance requirements intended to remediate oil leaks.

This prompted 350-Madison to ask the county to require that Enbridge set up a trust fund.

But if the county imposed a cleanup fund requirement, Enbridge would sue and probably win, assistant county attorney David Gault said last month in an opinion.

Patrick Miles, chairman of the county zoning board, said state lawmakers would respond by banning local requirements for the trust fund.

“I’m not interested in seeing more of our authority pulled out from under us,” Miles said. “It’s frustrating to have to be making that kind of calculus, but that’s the reality we’re dealing with.”

Enbridge has $860 million in liability insurance and could also tap federal and state cleanup funds if necessary to deal with a spill anywhere on its system in Wisconsin, company spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in an email. 

“If a release were to occur on Enbridge’s system in Dane County (or anywhere else in Wisconsin), we will take responsibility,” she said.