Sunday, January 31, 2016

WI's eased environmental regulation invites water privatization

[Updated] Defenders of the fast-tracked plan to enable out-of-state private companies to buy or lease publicly-owned water and sewerage systems in Wisconsin are saying that nothing negative would result from such takeovers because state regulatory agencies would continue their environmental, rate-setting and other public-interest missions.

So said the measure's lead Assembly sponsor:

The legislation was introduced at the request of a private water and sewer corporation based in Pennsylvania that may wish to acquire water utilities here, said Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, the proposal’s lead author. 
August said he was surprised by opposition because the state would continue to regulate water quality, sewage discharges and rates paid by customers for private systems just as it does for public ones.
Well - - let's take a look at the current direction and priorities of the state's water and utility regulators  - - the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission - - and see how their historic missions have been intentionally weakened in favor of corporate interests since Scott Walker was elected in 2011, and has governed with a nearly-unbroken string of ideological, pro-business majorities in the Legislature.

* Walker signed a bill in front of cheering realtors that eased wetlands protections, and he's just appointed a realtor and campaign contributor as chairman of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board - - the DNR's oversight, policy-guiding body - - as wetlands' replacement work continues to lag.

The Realtors are also key players at and on behalf of the rightwing State Supreme Court majority.

* In 2011, Walker also immediately installed a harsh DNR critic as agency secretary because she had what he called a "chamber of commerce mentality," then filled out the leadership team with more veterans from major business and trade associations and more recently deeply cut agency scientists from the department budget.

*  Little wonder that Wisconsin polluters have gotten tiny fines and other preferential treatment as DNR inspections and enforcement actions fell, records show. Not to worry, said the agency's senior managers - - it's all a matter of philosophy.

Which has its consequences:

With the help of powerful private sector interests, Walker and the legislature substantially weakened an important waterway protection effort - - the state's algae control and phosphorus pollution prevention program - - which had taken years of collaborative effort to craft and implement.

* The DNR recently refused to implement a judge's order following a lengthy hearing to limit the number of manure-producing cattle at a large dairy cattle operation.

*  Though such so-called CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, can pollute nearby wells, and measurable contamination of harmful nitrates is increasing statewide.

* And the bigger picture is no better: the state has 700 impaired waterways by the agency's own count and in 2014 added dozens more to the list; paradoxically, the DNR is currently reviewing whether a major Walker donor can build an 18-hole golf course on 247 acres of forested, wetland-laden land at the edge of Lake Michigan near Sheboygan through which runs The Black River, one of those impaired waterways. 

Opponents of the project's groundwater demands, deforestation, and planned incursion into an adjoining state park recently told the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board - - to which the DNR reports - - that test wells were drilled on the site without permits, among other concerns.

See and hear the opponents' ten-minute presentation beginning at the meeting's 2:21 mark, followed by about five minutes of Q & A.

* Separately, the DNR oversight board has put off a decision on whether to approve a controversial, separate state land sale involving another major Walker donor.

*  The DNR has gotten "a rare rebuke" from the US Environmental Protection Administration over multiple failures to enforce the US Clean Water Act, forcing Wisconsin citizens to petition the US EPA for intervention and relief that is the state's responsibility to guarantee.

And over at the Public Service Commission? Pretty much the same 'philosophy.'

* As he did with the DNR, Walker quickly loaded up the Commission with corporatist allies and private-sector staffers.

That trend has continued; one recent senior PSC staff appointment went to a lobbyist who previously worked for the mining firm which lost a bid to dynamite the Penokee Hills and dig miles of deep open-pit iron mines in the pristine Bad River watershed near Lake Superior in northwest Wisconsin.

* Little wonder that the agency is road-blocking wind and solar innovations in favor of fossil-fuel options and special interests.

* Or that the agency is a key player in the state's litigation against new federal clean air rules even though smokestack pollution fouls the air and the waters below.

Those are our tax dollars being spent on that 'philosophy,' folks.

And why local preservationists, from Sheboygan to Kewaunee near the big CAFO to Bayfield County are taking initiatives which, in another era, would have been the supportive role of the DNR, rather than that of obstructor.

So you're dreaming if you think these agencies' political appointees and managers in the right-wing machine running the state these days will be vigilant defenders of the public interest should out-of-state businesses driven by profit for investors and dividends to shareholders begin buying or leasing Wisconsin water and sewerage utilities.


nonquixote said...

And not being certain of the state's posted list having been up to date, Senator Frank Lasee was listed as a WI real estate broker along with an Amy Jo Lasee and a James Lasee retaining real estate sales licenses, when I checked last week.

No conflicts of interest to be supposed with the introduction and backing of any particular legislation by Senator Lasee I guess.

Anonymous said...

Ever notice that there are citizens organizations to advocate for rivers, lakes and wetlands but not groundwater? These organizations have yearly conferences, lobby days and paid staff. The WI Wetlands Association is having their 21st conference. The Lakes partnership has been around since the 1970s and the River Alliance was formed in 1993.

Man MKE said...

No one does the Wisconsin environmental roundup better than Jim here at Political Environment. This is a most useful summary, marked and saved. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Another attack on the open records laws.

Private companies are not subject to the open records laws.

There are no penalties for cover-ups or withholding information. They don't have to give it to you.

How will you know when one company pollutes and the other company turns a blind eye. Maybe they're owned by the same parent company?

You will get what they give you and nobody will ever know the difference, until someone dies or a child is permanently disabled.

Then again, Waukesha is dumping unfiltered and contaminated water into their distribution system in excess of the MCL on a regular basis. And the WDNR is withholding records claiming "attorney / client privilege".

The WDNR is a division of a corporation, Wisconsin. But the corporation has been raided in a take-over by outside interests and no longer belongs to the shareholders, the citizens of Wisconsin.

Freedom and democracy are under attack.

Gee, that sounds like a Republican rally cry.

Anonymous said...

It has been reported that Aqua America handed out donor dollars to the legislators that sponsored this bill. Obviously "Pay for Play" makes up the core functioning of government in Wisconsin to the Republican legislators the governor and the state agencies over which he holds an iron hand. Wisconsin is "Open for Business" can buy any legislation that you desire or deregulation that your company needs by paying at the Republican window. The only way this corruption will end is at the ballot box....providing that the Republican party hasn't already bought the machines that count the ballots. With the demise of the GAB has anyone checked on that?