Tag Archives: mining

Obama sets rule to protect streams near coal mines

The Obama administration this week set final rules designed to reduce the environmental impact of coal mining on the nation’s streams, a long-anticipated move that met quick resistance from Republicans who vowed to overturn it under President-elect Donald Trump.

The Interior Department said the new rule will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, preventing debris from coal mining from being dumped into nearby waters. The rule would maintain a buffer zone that blocks coal mining within 100 feet of streams, but would impose stricter guidelines for exceptions to the 100-foot rule.

Interior officials said the rule would cause only modest job losses in coal country, but Republicans and some coal-state Democrats denounced it as a job-killer being imposed during President Barack Obama’s final days in office.

Coal already is struggling under steep competition from cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas, as well as regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas pollution that contributes to climate change.

U.S. coal production has fallen to its lowest level in nearly 30 years, and several coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection in recent months, including three of the country’s biggest coal producers, Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the new rule a final, futile attempt by Obama to kill coal jobs and continue what he called Obama’s “war” on coal.

Bishop said he looks forward to working with Trump’s team “to overturn this unparalleled executive overreach and implement policies that protect communities forsaken by this administration,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed that “our unified Republican government will act to provide coal country with relief.”

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota also criticized the rule, which can be rejected by a majority vote in Congress.

Manchin called the rule “alarming in its scope and potential impacts” and said he will “pursue legislation to ensure it does not harm our coal mining communities and economies.”

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, a lobbying group that represents coal producers, called the rule a “post-election midnight regulation” that is “a win for bureaucracy and extreme environmental groups and a loss for everyday Americans.”

Quinn and other opponents said the rule appears to support the environmental movement’s “keep it in the ground” efforts to reduce extraction and use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil that contribute to global warming. He argued that locking away coal reserves will put tens of thousands of Americans out of work and raise energy costs for millions of Americans.

The Sierra Club, not surprisingly, disagreed, calling the rule “a long overdue step toward guaranteeing every community in America is protected from the toxic water pollution caused by surface coal mining.” The organization said the mining dumps dangerous heavy metals such as mercury, selenium and arsenic into local waterways and “puts the health of families living near coalfields at risk.”

An Interior official projected that fewer than 300 jobs would be lost after the regulation takes effect next month.

The rule would require companies to restore streams and return mined areas to conditions similar to those before mining took place. Companies also would have to replant native trees and vegetation.

The administration said the rule updates requirements in place since 1983. The biggest impact will be felt in states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Frac sand mine seeks to expand on Iowa-Wisconsin border

A controversial frac sand mining company that recently opened a site in Wisconsin is facing opposition to plans for a sevenfold expansion of its underground mine in Clayton County, Iowa.

Pattison Sand Co. has requested rezoning of 746 acres of land from agricultural to heavy industrial for eventual expansion of its underground mine from its current size of about 100 acres. The site, which includes surface mining on some of its 1,600 acres, lies along the Mississippi River directly across from Bagley, Wisconsin. Many of its roughly 150 employees live in southwestern Wisconsin.

Since Pattison Sand’s Clayton County site began operations in 2005, it has racked up more workplace violations than any other industrial sand mine in the United States, according to data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Among the violations is a 2008 accident in which a front-end loader with a defective rear-view mirror backed over a worker, killing her.

Patrick O’Shaughnessy, a professor of occupational and environmental health in the University of Iowa engineering college, told members of a county committee studying expansion on April 28 in Elkader, Iowa, that it would be wise to review the mine’s record and reputation when considering the proposal.

“There are good apples and there are bad apples in every industry, from swine rearing to sand mining,” O’Shaughnessy told the committee before a crowd of more than 60 people. “Is this someone who has flagrant violations constantly, or is this someone who’s typically got a good sense of safety for their workers, environmental consciousness, and they want to be a good neighbor?”

Nevertheless, O’Shaughnessy told members of the Mine Reserve Expansion Study Committee that residents living around the proposed expansion face a low risk of inhaling airborne silica particles from the mine. Inhaling silica can cause silicosis, an irreversible and sometimes fatal lung disease that can lead to cancer and tuberculosis.

The mine produces sand for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting water, fine-grained sand and chemicals at high pressure to break apart underground rock and release trapped oil and natural gas.

History of violations

According to the Center’s analysis, between April 2005 and January of this year, Pattison Sand’s site in Clayton County had 934 MSHA violations for which the company paid $279,000 in fines. Wedron Silica Co. in Illinois — the industrial sand mine with the second most violations in that time period — received 501 violations.

According to the data, little has changed since a 2013 Wall Street Journal analysis found that mining safety officials had cited Pattison Sand more than any other sand or gravel mine in the country. Among the violations identified by the Center, 235 were racked up since January 2013.

In addition, the Center found that 55 Pattison Sand employees have filed workers’ compensation claims for injuries sustained at the Iowa location between 2005 and January of this year. Claims include fractures, dislocations, sprains, hernias and heat prostration. Two of the claims were filed for respiratory problems.

In an interview, Christopher Hensler, district manager for MSHA’s north central district, said the regulatory agency’s inspectors have spent a lot of time at Pattison Sand’s Iowa site, but the sheer number of violations does not necessarily indicate a larger problem.

“The bulk of their violations are very simple electrical violations and defects of equipment that affect safety,” he said.

One 2008 violation involving defects of equipment, however, resulted in a fatality. In that incident, a front-end loader backed up, striking and killing a worker. MSHA’s investigation report found the accident was caused in part by the equipment’s defective rear-view mirror and the lack of visible reflective material on the employee. Pattison Sand was fined $70,000 for that violation.

A 2014 fire and multiple roof collapses in 2011 also generated violations that resulted in temporary shutdowns. The collapses and an ensuing legal battle shuttered the underground portion of the mine for several months in 2011 and 2012.

Other infractions at Pattison Sand’s Iowa site include exposing workers to harmful airborne contaminants, failing to have protective equipment and clothing, and neglecting to provide at least two escapeways to the surface in the mine.

Andy Garcia-Rivera, a former industrial hygiene compliance officer for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said although mines do tend to have many violations, the number of infractions Pattison Sand’s Iowa location has amassed is “unusual.”

“It tells me that there’s something wrong,” said Garcia-Rivera, who also directed environmental, health and safety compliance for the University Wisconsin-Madison campus. “Sometimes employers do take shortcuts.”

Official defends company record

Tim Adkins, who joined Pattison Sand 14 months ago as its health and safety director, said after the April 28 meeting that claiming Pattison Sand’s record is the worst in the industry is a “terrible, terrible, misconception” and an “out-of-context statement to make.” He attributed some of the past violations to lack of experience by the Pattison family, who used to store and ship grain from the underground caverns that are now mined.

“When they (Pattison Sand) went into the mining industry, they didn’t know about the mining industry. They’d never dealt with MSHA. They didn’t know MSHA regulations,” said Adkins, who has over 40 years of experience as a health and safety professional, including over 35 years in mining.

Adkins added that underground mines such as Pattison Sand’s generate more violations because they are inspected twice as often as surface mines, four times a year versus two.

“Pattison Sand is a good player, good operator,” Adkins said. “They care about their employees, they take extra steps to go above and beyond MSHA requirements, MSHA standards.”

But even when compared to other similar underground mines, Pattison’s track record is not stellar. In 2010, 2011 and 2014, the company’s Iowa mine had above-average rates among underground metal and nonmetal mines of violations deemed “significant and substantial” by MSHA. Data prior to 2010 were not available.

Adkins said Pattison Sand works very closely with MSHA to ensure compliance. That was not always the case.

In 2011, Pattison Sand sued the agency after it shut down the majority of the underground mine following multiple roof collapses, including one in which at least 30 tons of rock fell onto an excavator; the miner operating it was unhurt. The lawsuit and appeals kept the underground part of the mine closed for several months.

Besides Pattison’s Iowa mine, MSHA lists only two other underground industrial sand mines in the country. Both are located in Pierce County, Wisconsin, and operated by the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co. Since 2005, one of the mines has received 279 violations — a fraction of the number racked up by Pattison. The other, operating only since 2008, has received 127 violations.

Opponents continue to fight

At the April 28 meeting in Elkader, 37 people submitted comments raising questions about Pattison Sand’s record of MSHA violations, burning at the company’s Iowa site, workers’ respiratory problems, conflicting results of air quality studies and dust.

Kathy Kachel, who attended the meeting, blames Pattison Sand’s Iowa mine for the white sand she dusts inside her house. She lives in Bagley and can see the facility from her porch. Kachel would like to see it shut down.

“There is a proliferation of silica (sand) at this point for fracking,” Kachel said. “It’s not healthy for anybody — the environment, the wildlife, my grandchildren.”

In Wisconsin, Pattison Sand operates a surface mine in Bridgeport, about a 30-minute drive northeast of its Iowa site. Four Bridgeport residents and the Crawford Stewardship Project, an environmental group that promotes sustainability and local control of natural resources, tried unsuccessfully to block that mine. Its status is currently listed as “intermittent” based on the number of hours worked at the site.

Since it began operating in August 2013, the Bridgeport mine has received seven violations for which the company paid $824 in fines. Those violations include failing to notify MSHA before starting operations, neglecting to prepare a material safety data sheet for each hazardous chemical the mine uses or produces, failing to provide first aid materials, and failing to provide safe means of access to travelways.

Garcia-Rivera said violations at mines that are not yet fully operational, such as Pattison Sand’s Bridgeport site, are to be expected. MSHA is only required to inspect such intermittent surface mines once a year. The mine expansion committee plans to meet again on Wednesday.

Digital and multimedia director Coburn Dukehart contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Budget contains ‘a grab bag of anti-conservation policy’

Wisconsin’s Republican leadership has enacted a measure that would allow the accident-prone Canadian energy transportation company Enbridge to bury oil pipelines on property anywhere in the state it desires. The property owner’s approval is not required.

The measure was among 67 proposals in the Joint Finance Committee’s wrap-up motion (known as the 999 motion) to the 2015–17 biennial budget approval process. Many of the proposals were both controversial and unrelated to the budget, reflecting a strategy used by both parties for circumventing public attention and debate on hot-button issues. 

The 999 proposals were harshest on environmental issues, according to Wisconsin conservation groups. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters described the budget as a whole as “a grab bag of anti-conservation policy.”

Among the worst of the new environmental laws, conservationists said, are those that were designed to benefit Enbridge, the world’s largest transporter of tar sands oil, the most hazardous of all petroleum products to transport. The company has close ties with Wisconsin Republicans. 

The impetus for the new laws is to expedite Enbridge’s plan to expand the volume on Line 61, which crosses the state diagonally from Superior to Flanagan, Illinois — a pipeline that currently conveys half a million barrels of tar sands crude a day. Enbridge wants to triple that volume, which would make Line 61 the highest-volume pipeline in the nation — one-third larger than the Keystone XL.

Line 61 passes under every major waterway in the state, and Enbridge has the Western Hemisphere’s worst record for oil spills — a combination of factors that alarms environmentalists.

According to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Enbridge is guilty of more than 100 environmental violations in 14 Wisconsin counties. In 2010, the break of an Enbridge line in Michigan spewed oil for more than 17 hours before Enbridge realized it was leaking. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, with a clean-up price tag of $1.2 billion. EPA officials struggled three years to get Enbridge to clean up the impacted area, and environmentalists say the work is still incomplete. 

Enbridge’s plan to expand Line 61 had been held up by Dane County, where officials demanded that the company carry $25 million in pollution insurance before they would approve a new pumping station in the county’s northeastern corner. 

But with a proposal included in the 999 motion, Republican leaders enabled Enbridge to circumvent the requirement with a new provision that bans local jurisdictions from requiring insurance on an operator of a hazardous liquid pipeline as long as the company carries comprehensive insurance coverage, according to Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator for the Sierra Club’s John Muir chapter.

Given the cost of clean-ups, the frequency of Enbridge accidents and the company’s history of reluctance to clean up after itself, Dane County officials fear the company’s current insurance coverage is inadequate.

Seizing land

Another item folded into the 999 motion expands the state’s eminent domain law so that it virtually would allow Enbridge to seize property from any individual and use it for placing a pipeline. Although the Public Service Commission must deem such an action necessary for the public interest, environmentalists said obtaining its permission would be merely a formality in most cases, given that Gov. Scott Walker, who appoints its commissioners, controls the PSC.

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Danielle Kaeding reported that legislative drafting files show that Enbridge had direct involvement in changing the wording of the eminent domain law to include itself. 

“A staffer with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ office requested Enbridge Energy attorneys speak with drafters on a language change affecting who has power to take private property for public use,” WPR reported.

Enbridge has shown its willingness to exercise eminent domain rights in other states. It recently filed a lawsuit in North Dakota against holdout landowners who refused to give the company permission to use their properties for a pipeline that will convey tar sands oil from North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin.

Enbridge also has eminent domain rights in Michigan, where in 2012 the company took 70 homeowners in Ingham and Livingston counties to court to force them to relinquish their property for the installation of a new pipeline. The new pipeline replaced the one that ruptured in 2010 and dumped 800,000 gallons of crude oil into a Kalamazoo River tributary near Marshall.

On July 8, the same day the Legislature approved the final budget, demonstrators congregated outside Gov. Walker’s office in Madison to protest what 350 Madison called “a Republican scheme to pay off the Enbridge pipeline company in the state budget bill.” 

Protesters floated a balloon shaped like an octopus next to Walker’s East Wing office. The octopus dropped thousands of dollars in monopoly money “to represent the campaign contributions it expects the governor and Republican legislators to receive for doing the company’s bidding,” according to a news release. 

“Since the politicians are so intent on getting campaign contributions, regardless of the harm it does to the state’s taxpayers and landowners along the line, we thought we’d help speed up getting the pipeline company’s contributions to the governor,” said landowner Ronni Monroe from Jefferson County.

Other disappointments

Another big disappointment to environmentalists contained in the budget is the removal of water quality protections currently used by 30 counties to protect lakes and rivers. The overturned water protection law was developed with the input of thousands of voters, local government officials, state lawmakers, conservation groups and many others, according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “Yet, in one motion, 12 members of the Joint Finance Committee removed one of local government’s most important tools for ridding their lakes of stinky, toxic algae blooms,” WLVC said in a news release.

In addition, the budget eliminates scientists from the Department of Natural Resources, freezes the state’s land conservation program, raises park fees and eliminates public oversight of a number of conservation-related programs.

The budget ordered the Public Service Commission to undertake a $250,000 study of the safety of wind energy, despite the fact that the PSC just last year concluded such a study using data from peer-reviewed scientific journals. Critics suggest the administration is hoping to manipulate the study this time to produce a different outcome.

The Walker administration has taken extreme actions to halt the growth of alternative energy in Wisconsin at the expense of both jobs and future energy costs. Meanwhile, solar and wind industries are booming in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois — which is one of the reasons Wisconsin’s economy and job growth are lagging so badly.

“We really are unique in how backward we are in renewable energy,” Ward said. “The majority of the state wants more clean energy, and it’s just not happening.”

Numerous wind energy projects that were interested in Wisconsin have gone to neighboring states due to the Legislature’s unwillingness to establish firm rules about how far turbines can be set back from streets. Wind energy companies won’t invest in costly projects that might be declared in violation of the law after they’re built. 

“Wisconsin already has the strictest setback limits in the nation,” said Amber Meyer Smith, director of government relations for Clean Wisconsin. 

She said the upside of the wind energy budget item is the Legislature declined to fund the study and scaled it back so that it now consists of studying last year’s study. 

Utility companies in the state have established relatively high fees — and even what amount to penalties — for individuals who want to use solar panels on their homes. 

“Our public service commission, which is supposed to be the bridge between the utilities and the public, has been pushing back against alternative energy,” Ward said. “They have decided to continue policies that rely on fossil fuels, especially coal-fired plants, here in Wisconsin.”

That strategy is consistent with the wishes of Koch Industries and other fossil fuel companies, which have donated millions of dollars to elect Walker and Wisconsin Republicans. Since 1997, the Koch Brothers have given at least $79,048,951 to groups denying climate change, according to a study conducted by Greenpeace USA.

Conservationists initially found at least one thing to celebrate in the budget.

Republican lawmakers had refused to give a greenlight to unnecessary expansion of I-94, and they adopted a measure that requires an audit of how the Wisconsin Department of Transportation chooses which projects to recommend and how it conducts traffic studies to assess the need for new highways.

Most projects currently on WisDOT’s to-do list have been discovered to be unneeded. The projects have carried the suspicion of being motivated by cronyism rather than the public’s interests.

Unfortunately, Walker vetoed the item.

Wisconsin Republicans fire DNR scientists working on research related to climate change and pollution

Republican lawmakers are cutting scientists from the Department of Natural Resources who worked on issues related to climate change, pollution and mining.

Republicans claim the cuts are designed to refocus the DNR on hunting and fishing. But Democrats say the GOP is retaliating against researchers in areas they oppose for political reasons.

“It has to be political,” Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, a member of the Legislature’s budget committee, said of the cuts. “The public hasn’t called for this. Most people in the state want decisions about the environment to be based on science, not politics.”

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, an unannounced 2016 presidential contender, included provisions in his state budget to slash 17.5 researcher positions from the DNR’s Science Services Bureau, which would leave it with 12.85 research positions.

The budget says the cut positions no longer serve the DNR’s core mission. Asked to explain, Walker’s spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email that Walker is focused on streamlining state government and making it more efficient.

The Bureau of Science Services’ biennial research plan released in 2013 called for extensive study on how climate change has affected the Great Lakes, Wisconsin’s river ecosystems, and the state’s forests, wildlife and fish. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, of the 96,200 hours the bureau worked in fiscal year 2013–14, 2,800 hours were spent on climate change-related research.

The plan also called for research into what it termed “emerging” pollutants such as prescription drugs, hormones and industrial additives and agents. In addition, it called for developing ways to predict and mitigate how sand, iron and sulfide mining affects air and water, plants and animals, and creating new monitoring strategies for newly permitted mines.

The bureau’s fish and wildlife-forestry sections undertook 109 projects in the 2012–13 and 2013–14 fiscal years, according to the Fiscal Bureau. Thirteen involved pollution research. One involved providing research to the DNR’s water division on recommendations for monitoring parameters in iron mining applications.

All of those issues are politically inconvenient for Republicans, whose donors are involved in pollution-producing businesses that are costlier to operate under environmental regulations. Republicans, including Walker, don’t allow staff to even talk about climate change, let alone the fact that an overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence shows it’s happening.

Two years ago, the Wisconsin GOP completely revamped Wisconsin’s mining laws to clear the regulatory path for a giant iron mine just south of Lake Superior. The company that prompted the change in rules contributed $700,000 to Walker and Republicans.

Republicans on the Legislature’s finance committee approved the science position cuts earlier this month. Committee member Tom Tiffany, a Republican state senator from Hazelhurst who authored the mining regulation overhaul, led the charge, writing a motion to keep the cuts in the budget.

Committee Democrats accused Republicans of retaliating against the scientists for their work on climate change and mining regulations. They demanded the GOP turn its ire toward DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee who approved the bureau’s research plan. Republicans didn’t offer a direct defense, although Tiffany assured the Democrats that other DNR divisions could absorb the work and dismissed their complaints as hyperbole.

Tiffany denied in a phone interview that the cuts are retaliatory, but he said he doesn’t think the office has helped sportsmen. The bureau’s deer population estimates, for example, led to too many antlerless permits in northern Wisconsin over the years and the region’s herd still hasn’t recovered, he said.

Integrating the scientists’ tasks within the DNR’s divisions will improve focus on practical projects rather than “theoretical” issues such as climate change, Tiffany said.

“Let’s make sure we’re doing applied science that benefits people here in Wisconsin,” Tiffany said. “Let’s offer more opportunities for sportsmen rather than going off on something that’s theoretical.”

More than 90 percent of peer-reviewed scientific literature supports the notion that the world is warming due to human activity, especially burning fossil fuels.

The science bureau’s director, Jack Sullivan, declined to comment.

Sierra Club urges Wisconsin lawmakers to repeal Gogebic mining law

The Sierra Club on March 30 renewed its call for the Wisconsin Legislature to repeal 2013 Act 1, the measure written by Gogebic Taconite to enable its now-abandoned proposal. The measure gutted environmental protections to ease the way for the project.

The Sierra Club in a statement issued on March 30 said the measure should be repealed in its entirety.

Said the environmental advocacy group: the iron mining law is based on the scientific falsehood that iron mining cannot cause acid mine drainage caused by the presence of sulfide minerals. Numerous independent geologic studies have proven that there are significant quantities of sulfide minerals in the Penokees at the proposed Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine site. This fact proves that the reductions of environmental protections along with severe limits on the public’s right to participate and challenge permits were unjustified.    

“GTac has abandoned its proposal after demanding certainty in permitting that only this law could give it. That fact gives the Legislature a rare opportunity to fix the huge mistake it made when it approved such damaging legislation based on false information. GTac lied to the public and the legislature to get its way and made a lot of promises it couldn’t keep.  Let’s fix this law now before the next fly-by-night company shows up,” said Dave Blouin, Sierra Club John Muir Chapter mining committee chair.

The ferrous mining law was overwhelming opposed at each public hearing held by the state. And more than 75 statewide, local and national conservation and environmental organizations — the Sierra Club, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, Trout Unlimited, the Wisconsin Association of Lakes, the Izaak Walton League of Wisconsin, the River Alliance of Wisconsin, the Penokee Hills Education Project, the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin, Clean Wisconsin, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council — opposed the legislation.

Polling showed a majority of state residents opposed the law, which established broad and comprehensive reductions in environmental protections and citizen involvement to enable the mining proposal. The law, for example, established that the destruction of wetlands through mining and for dumping wastes into, was presumed necessary.

The law also reduced protections for lakes, streams, groundwater and air.

Environmentalists launch $1 million campaign to defeat Scott Walker

 The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and the national League of Conservation Voters this week launched a $1 million campaign targeting Gov. Scott Walker.

The Republican’s anti-environment record has put Wisconsin into the LCV’s “Dirty Dozen in the States.”

The campaign targeting Walker, who faces Democrat Mary Burke on Nov. 4, includes TV ads and mail.

WLCV’s TV ad, which begins airing today, can be viewed at: Conservation Voters Ad.

LCV’s “Dirty Dozen in the States” highlights 12 of the most anti-conservation state-level candidates from around the country.

“From letting polluters off the hook when they contaminate our water to making clean energy a thing of the past, Gov. Walker has made one thing perfectly clear: in Gov. Walker’s Wisconsin, big polluters are rewarded – and the rest of us are left to pay the price,” said Kerry Schumann, Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters executive director. “Gov. Walker was an obvious choice for the Dirty Dozen list.”

Added Gene Karpinski, president of the national league, “States are playing an increasingly important role in determining how our country meets the challenges of clean air, clean water, and climate change. With so much at stake, it’s absolutely critical that voters defeat politicians who stand with corporate polluters and elect environmental leaders at the state and local level who will move us toward a clean energy future.” 

The groups’ said:

Not only did Walker support the mining bill — written by an out-of-state mining company — that allows mining companies to expose our families to arsenic, lead, and mercury, but the company, Gogebic Taconite, secretly donated $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a group actively supporting Walker.

Since Walker took office, enforcement against illegal polluters has dropped 45 percent. One of those illegal polluters, Herr Environmental, was treating fields with 300 percent as much human waste as their permit allowed, endangering 40 nearby drinking water wells.

The environment: Walker vs. Burke

With the November election six weeks away, neither Republican Gov. Scott Walker nor Democratic challenger Mary Burke have put forward any grand strategies for new environmental or outdoors policies.

In a race that has largely revolved around who can create jobs, both candidates are sticking to general comments about balancing the need to protect natural resources with economic development.

Walker’s record is clear: He spent his first four years in office reversing environmental regulations, suggesting more of the same if he wins a second term.

Burke, a Madison school board member mounting her first bid for a statewide office, has no environmental record. Still,  the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter has endorsed her.

“I don’t mind some of the vagaries,” said Shahla Werner, the chapter director. “We’re just asking for someone to use common sense in making sure our drinking water is safe and development isn’t going to have huge negatives for the environment. It’s been so partisan and ideological rather than data-based for the last four years, we can’t even reason with elected officials.”

Walker spent his first term pushing business-supported environmental initiatives, leading his opponents to accuse him of politicizing the Department of Natural Resources.

He created a new DNR office to support businesses and ordered the agency to take a softer approach in dealing with the public. The number of environmental violations the DNR has referred to the state Justice Department for enforcement has dropped 60 percent since Walker took office.

The governor signed legislation giving wastewater treatment plants, paper mills and food processors 20 years to comply with the state’s phosphorus pollution limits.

He also signed a Republican bill relaxing mining regulations to help jump-start Gogebic Taconite’s plans for an iron mine near Lake Superior despite conservationists’ concerns about pollution in the pristine region.

Walker has taken steps welcomed by hunters, including eliminating a DNR program that required hunters in areas with large deer herds to kill an antlerless deer before taking a buck.

He also hired a Texas researcher to study how the agency could improve relations with hunters.

And Walker signed a controversial bill creating a wolf hunt over complaints from animal rights advocates.

Eric Bott is the environmental policy director for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group.

He said his organization is pleased with Walker. WMC wants to see the governor speed up air and water permits and stand up for businesses as the state crafts a strategy to meet the Obama’s administration’s call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next four years, he said.

“We’ve seen the governor is really focused on improving the regulatory process,” Bott said. “We would expect those reforms to continue.”

Asked about Walker’s future environmental agenda, campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre cited Walker’s experience as a Boy Scout and the lessons he learned about leaving his campsite cleaner than he found it.

“He applies the same approach to protecting our natural resources today,” she said in an email. “Governor Walker believes that the best way to be green is to help people save green or make green. If individuals can save or make money while preserving natural resources, it is both economically and environmentally sustainable.”

Burke, meanwhile, has never held a Wisconsin hunting or fishing license, according to the DNR.

Her campaign website says she opposes the iron mine because Republicans allowed Gogebic Taconite to write its own rules and wants communities to impose local sand mining regulations rather have the state dictate uniform standards.

The site offers almost no other specifics on Burke’s environmental or outdoors agendas, though.

Asked for Burke’s priorities, campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said by email that Burke would:

• Ensure the agency enforces current environmental law.

• Appoint a DNR secretary with a science-based background.

• Rely on science to manage the state’s deer and wolf hunts.

• Protect water quality.

The email said she would work with legislators to ensure responsible mining but didn’t say how.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said Burke seems to be looking at issues from a macro level and he’s pleased she’s committed to science.

“That,” Meyer said, “would be a breath of fresh air after this administration.”

 

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Mining the bottom of the political pits

The latest court documents released from the John Doe investigation of Gov. Scott Walker’s political activities provide an unsurprising but depressing look at how low American politics has sunk.

Apparently Walker instructed donors to get around state-mandated limits on individuals’ donations to his campaign by contributing unlimited amounts to the Koch brothers-backed group Wisconsin Club for Growth. Under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, individuals and corporations can give whatever they want to third-party political action committees advocating for issues instead of candidates.

The problem here, of course, is that Club for Growth’s issue was advocating for Walker — to help him win his recall race and continue moving forward with their corporate agenda like a charging bull. Emails among Walker’s staffers make that irrefutably clear.

Did the strategy amount to illegal coordination of fundraising under state law? That’s for prosecutors to decide. If Walker is indicted, he’ll be regarded as a martyr by the right; if not, the left will continue to whine about “fairness,” as if such a concept ever existed in politics. The only thing that really matters is that the money Walker raised for CFG was successfully used to promote his messaging and win his recall race.

The most damning donation to the complex Walker campaign apparatus was the $700,000 donation from Gogebic, the company that wants to build a massive, open-pit iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills. As an assemblyman, Walker reportedly opposed mining expansion — as well he should have. It creates a modicum of short-term jobs but very long-term profits for its out-of-state owners and even longer-term, perhaps permanent, damage to the environment.

It’s now embarrassing for Walker and his apologists that one of the first things he did after being elected was to ram through changes in the mine-permitting process without even first gathering input from residents near the mining area. The scenario is no different in effect than the pay-to-play scandals that have landed so many elected officials in prison, even if proving causality in this case is probably impossible.

But we already knew that this was how Walker — and, to be fair, nearly everyone else in politics these days — flies. What’s far more disturbing is that voters have become so accustomed to it, they only complain when an elected official on the other end of the political spectrum is caught. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.

No one should accept this sort of behavior from any candidate affiliated with any political party. Our democratic process has collapsed into a scheme that seeks only to manipulate and trick voters by inundating them with misleading spin and outright lies. The more money you have, the more and cleverer propaganda you can churn out via mailers, print ads and commercials. The higher the office, the more this costs. That’s why our leaders spend the vast majority of their time raising fundraising.

Is it any wonder that nothing ever gets done for the average working stiff?

The big bucks rule in today’s America. And those who believe that’s a good thing — that after 30 years of failure, trickle-down is magically going to help the poor and middle-class lift themselves up by their bootstraps and join the country club — are living proof of how effective mass messaging has become. Once they’re sufficiently propagandized, people will stop believing their own lying eyes.

There’s only one way out of this tragic ending to the great American experiment in government: a constitutional amendment that overturns Citizens United.

Can it happen? That seems to depend on how much the people against Citizens United can raise versus how much the mega-corporations who are for it can raise.

How much are you in for?

Wisconsin environmental group urges state to reject Smart Sand application

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is calling on the state to reject an application from an out-of-state frac sand mining company that is seeking status as a green company.

The environmental group is calling on Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp, who was appointed by Gov. Scott Walker, to reject the application for “Green Tier” status from Smart Sand, Inc. The Green Tier program was created in 2004 to reward companies for superior environmental performance. To qualify, companies must have a demonstrated commitment to protecting the environment.

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters says Smart Sand doesn’t come close to qualifying.

“Not only does Smart Sand not meet the Green Tier criteria, they are guilty of violating air pollution standards already. Awarding them with this special recognition would be nothing less than greenwashing. And that’s not going to sit well with Wisconsin citizens, past Green Tier recipients, or us,” said Anne Sayers, program director for Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

Nearly 2,000 citizens registered their opposition to the prospect of awarding Green Tier status to the frac sand mining company. The DNR claims it received more comments on this particular Green Tier application than any in the program’s 10-year history. Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters supporters alone generated 1,932 comments. 

Smart Sand, according to environmentalists, has a processing capacity of over a million tons of sand per year on its more than 1,000 acres in Oakdale. In the two years the company has operated in Wisconsin, it has received a notice of violation for failure to comply with state air pollution standards.

“The decision of whether to undermine the integrity of the Green Tier program or not rests in the hands of Gov. Walker appointee, Secretary Stepp. We join thousands of others in asking Secretary Stepp to stop delaying and reject the Smart Sand Green Tier application,” said Sayers.