Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Call For Stronger Environmental Media Advocacy On Journal Sentinel Blog Site

The Journal Sentinel's editorial board took a look at the drop-off in Wisconsin DNR pollution enforcement actions and says it isn't necessarily a cause for concern.

[A version of this posting ran yesterday here at The Political Environment.]

The agency is working closely with businesses to make sure problems don't crop up in the first place, says the paper.
But the agency is now managed with an intentional "chamber-of-commerce mentality," yet the paper is willing to give the agency the benefit of the doubt.
I call that a risky, laissez-faire rationalization, especially since the Legislature is moving towards easier private access to the state's waters, so I challenge the effectiveness of the editorial's conclusion:
"Still, it bears watching to make sure the DNR approach under Walker is indeed working."
How would you know it is not "indeed working?"
After the fact, regrettably - - when the pollutants have spilled and the wells or the streams dry up - - because too many people had their alarms on "off" and "snooze," or trusted officials more interested in the corporate balance sheet or campaign accounts' bottom lines.
Remember the major frac sand mud spill into the St. Croix River in 2012?
It was reported to authorities by a hiker, not a company official, and still took another four days for a DNR plane to spot the source.
And what is the commitment where troubling outcomes are already known? Is there pro-activity there, or inactivity?
Levels of nitrates and phosphorous are rising in many sloughs of the Wisconsin River, causing concern among anglers from Iowa, Sauk and Columbia counties and the author of a new study suggests the river should be placed on a national list of endangered bodies of water.
And does the DNR have a pro-active plan to reclaim Wisconsin land and waters already deemed heavily-polluted from from livestock operations?

As of 2010, pollution from livestock operations of all sizes has left more than 4,000 acres of lakes and 377 miles of rivers and creeks too polluted to sustain their designated uses of swimming, fishing, or providing a healthy habitat for aquatic plants and animals in Wisconsin.

Furthermore, does the editorial board take comfort knowing the Legislature is moving towards giving known phosphorus polluters a 20-year extension to finish water cleanup actions that were supposed to be dealt with though a plan in place negotiated among stakeholders that had won federal EPA approval?
The Legislative 'reform' working its way towards hearings at the behest of the WMC and other business interests to derail the plan in place also would transfer some regulation away from DNR professionals to DOA bureaucrats. Where the lines of authority run more directly to the Governor's office.
And, in a separate bill, special-interest legislative captives in the GOP want to reduce the DNR's authority to manage groundwater withdrawals by taking the cumulative impacts of withdrawals on other nearby users - - like municipal drinking water systems - - out of the regulatory/approval equation.
Wisconsin used to have a public intervenor in the Attorney General's office to monitor such events and sue on the public's behalf when necessary if everyone's resources - - fresh water, clean air, pollutant-free land - - were endangered.
Tommy Thompson got rid of it on behalf of his corporate friends; that loss was discussed in a Marquette Law Review article by Wisconsin environmental attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin.
And in this current political environment, where special interests have even more control of the process, and where the public's constitutionally-guaranteed water resources are at stake, media like the state's biggest newspaper need to step up and be the Public Advocate of First Response and Last Resort.
If not you, whom else?
Opinion-makers ought to champion without compromise the guiding public resource protection principle that concluded a long-standing Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling still deemed relevant enough to have escaped scrubbing (so far) from the DNR's Public Trust Doctrine web pages:

"A little fill here and there may seem to be nothing to become excited about. But one fill, though comparatively inconsequential, may lead to another, and another, and before long a great body may be eaten away until it may no longer exist. Our navigable waters are a precious natural heritage, once gone, they disappear forever," wrote the Wisconsin State Supreme Court justices in their opinion resolving Hixon v. PSC. [11/29/66]

Where is the paper's strong defense of the Public Trust Doctrine, which is not only embedded in the State Constitution as Article IX but has been guiding water rights and responsibilities pro-actively since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787?
Laissez faire didn't work well in West Virginia when it came to state stewardship of the people's waters there.
Hoping that oil pipelines would work as well as the operating companies had promised did not keep the Kalamazoo River just next door in Michigan protected from a break, a spill, massive contamination and a long, drawn-out billion-dollar cleanup.

A pipeline run by the same company expanding operations in Wisconsin.
Mega-dairies, frac sand mine excavators, and other private interests which want freer access to publicly-held groundwater, or which would risk acid mine runoff into the Bad River watershed near Ashland have got to be more assertively challenged by media commentators dedicated first-and-foremost to everyday citizens who do not have trade associations, legislative friends, lobbyists, PAC's, donation bundling conduits and PR firms at their beck-and-call.

Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson gave Earth Day its start; Wisconsin as a whole these days needs and deserves stronger, focused environmental watchdog advocacy.


David Blaska said...

Jim Doyle had 8 years to reinstitute the public interferer. Why didn't he?

John Kaufman said...

Well said, James.

The "public trust doctrine" ought also to mean that the public does not simply trust corporations to do the right ecological thing. Historically, we know why strict and vigorous environmental regulation is necessary: without it, profit trumps prudence. Nothing new under the sun, still.

Boxer said...

I hear what you're saying about hitting the snooze or off buttons, but here's some good music to wake to albeit via NY Magazine and not the JS as you point out. The JS was thrown in the trunk of the GOP Clown Car. As a result, the only sound we hear from them is muffled and makes little sense.

Jodi Habush Sinykin said...

Outstanding entry—it could easily be a “state of the state” rebuttal. I appreciate your connecting the dots between the mounting assault on our Public Trust resources with the ongoing loss of the Public Intervenor's Office. Keep doing what you are doing, as you are helping to provide folks with a logical framework for the discomfort and frustration they feel about the direction of our state. Even so, I believe we need to do more to inform the rest of the country about what is going on here in Wisconsin, so that we can demonstrate the “underbelly” of currently vaunted policies.

James Rowen said...

Thank you, Jodi, Boxer and Jphn.

Boxer said...

Sorry I forgot to include the link I was referring to:

Boxer said...

Jodi, great points as you always make. The rest of the country does need to know what is going on here, but most of the rest of the country is under literal and figurative assault from ALEC-led voter suppression efforts, big and little chinks being taken out of the environmental protection armor, loss of investigative journalism and the media outlets willing to publish those stories, the ongoing struggles of everyday Americans just trying to hang on to their homes, their jobs and to raise their children, diminishing access to even good primary and secondary education as well as higher education, eroding of truth-telling from EVERY direction, polarized politics that most folks just want to go away, and the dumbing down of America in general . . . well, who has time to find out or energy to care what is happening in Wisconsin?

We may have to wait until good old Wis ends up in the proverbial handbasket in hell. Then Frontline can come in and do a documentary re Whatever Happened to Wisconsin?

Sorry to be dark. Sometimes I can't read James' entire posts. I have to break them up into emotionally manageable pieces.

Blessings on you both for carrying the message.