Monday, March 12, 2018

Walker has debased WI agency reviewing Foxconn water ask

[Updated from 3/8-9,12/16] You have until March 21 to send the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources your thoughts - - email, regular mail directions, here - - on the application to the DNR for the green-light to divert 7 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water to GOP Gov. Scott Walker's beloved, budget-busting project for Foxconn - - a private business headquartered in Taiwan.

This is the same project financed with record-breaking state subsidies organized by Walker and his compliant, GOP-led state legislature where excavation, paving and building on 3,000 acres of Racine County farmland, wetlands, lake beds and stream courses has been exempted through precedent-setting special-interest legislation from routine state environmental assessments and permit requirements.

Here is a full Foxconn archive back to day one.

3/12 update - - More on Wisconsin's environmental outlier status, here.

So, yes, it's important to send in your comments and build a strong record in favor of water conservation and Great Lakes integrity - - despite plenty of reasons to believe that the approval is in the bag - - but also without any illusions.

The diversion application - - to be reviewed by, and receive its up or down ruling from, the DNR and only the DNR - - also seeks DNR approval for Foxconn's flat-screen panel production processes to use consumptively about 40% of its daily diversion, with the balance returned to the lake properly treated.

Here's an overriding thought about all this to consider alongside two others I wrote about Wednesday:

*  The application has a fundamental credibility problem. 


Because the DNR has a credibility problem, having been stripped of authenticity and respectability by a Governor who intentionally installed across top management positions a 'chamber of commerce mentality.'

And cut its budget, and laid off scientific staffers and generally trashed its mission to erase its legacy and weaken its relationship with the public and devalue its importance to individuals by creating in its place - -  a hybrid agency - - part Department of Agriculture, part Department of Commerce,

Discussed for years on this blog - - here, for example, or here.

And led for the first seven years of Walker's administration by a GOP former home builder and McDonald's manager who agreed to do Walker's anti-science, anti-climate change bidding right down to getting rid of staff scientists whom GO legislators said were out of step: 

In her own 2015 words:
Stepp declined interview requests, but in August she said that while protecting researchers from political pressure is key, senior scientist positions were being shed because the DNR Bureau of Science Services had run afoul of elected officials.
“We want to make sure that research that’s going on is answering the questions our regulators on the ground have or our biologists on the ground have or our user groups and interested citizens have,” Stepp said in an interview with WisconsinEye. “That hasn’t been the case in the past.
“We’ve seen a pretty sound response from the Legislature during this last budget process on some things that they saw that happened historically in that particular area of the department that they were unhappy about, and they wanted to send a message to us, (which) is, you know, ‘Get your researchers in better line with what their constituents are telling them, the legislators,’ and we’re going to do that.”
Stepp said an example was a science bureau compilation of scientific literature on environmental effects of mines while a controversial iron mine was being developed in 2014.
Validating this story about demands that mine's leading backer had made on Walker:
State Sen. Tom Tiffany has owned up to asking for job cuts to DNR scientists, who he has said focus too much on climate change.
On Friday’s Devil’s Advocate radio show, the Hazelhurst Republican said he asked Gov. Scott Walker and his staff to include a provision in the state budget axing approximately 17 positions from the Department of Natural Resources’ Science Services Bureau.
“Yes,” he said in responding to a question asking him if he requested the cuts.
Which is why you won't see the DNR fighting Tiffany on his wetland-filing bill Walker just signed into law.

Or opposing Tiffany's separate bill Walker also recently signed to allow companies  to begin very toxic mining statewide that had been barred for the last 20 years.

So you can see why the DNR - - this weakened, circumscribed and beaten-down iteration of a once-proud science and conservation-minded agency - - is absolutely the wrong body at the wrong time to be asked to objectively assess whether diverting all that water - - not to mention deciding whether the company's industrial-scale addition of chemicals to its manufacturing and wastewater treatment processes - - to serve one private business meets the rules of a multi-state Compact created to allow such diversions for extremely-limited and public purposes only:
Jodi Habush Sinykin, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said the Great Lakes Compact bans diversions outside the Great Lakes basin unless they meet narrowly defined exceptions. She cited section 4.9.1 of the compact that states “all the water so transferred shall be used solely for public water supply purposes within the straddling community.”
The compact further defines “public water supply” as serving “largely residential customers that may also serve industrial, commercial and other institutional operators,” Sinykin said.
“Rather, the complete opposite is true,” she said. “Racine will use the majority, if not the entirety, of the diverted Great Lakes water to serve the industrial needs of a single, private, foreign industrial entity – Foxconn.”
And let me be clear here that I am addressing in this assessment of the DNR the senior, politicized management of the agency on behalf of Walker's vision and not the hard work of many DNR staffers who continue to do their jobs day-in-and-day out with public service dedication and professionalism. 

Note, for example, this then-current DNR observation first published among many informed comments posted on this blog in 2016:
Under Walker and [then-DNR Secretary Cathy] Stepp, science is not a priority. Scientific knowledge is ever-changing but in Wisconsin our staff are being left behind. We no longer have a statistician to help interpret data, a library to provide journals or books, or researchers that monitor fish counts, wildlife health, air quality, water quality and etc….employee scientific knowledge and data specific to WI is stagnant...we cannot do the best job possible for our state. 
The DNR is currently run by people who understand public relations spin but not the complexity of the natural resources they are responsible for...Communications staff, generally not trained specifically in resource communication, answer questions with talking points..usually developed by upper management - political appointees - and legal staff. The information provided is biased and superficial.
Act 10 and the pay cuts related to that have been hard on a lot of staff...We now do the minimum to protect resources...
I do believe that all the natural resources of Wisconsin belong to the people of Wisconsin...I don't understand why people who live in one of the most beautiful and environmentally diverse places in the world voted for environmental degradation. 
A view echoed by a former expert staffer:
The most alarming issue to me is the great waste of decades of sound science, compiled overtime in on-going studies and data collection. WI had more information about our natural landscape than most states. Abolishing science services put an end to decades long studies vital to maintaining and recovering rare and endangered plants and animals as well as understanding natural communities as information on resilience for climate change.  
Observations also echoed by Gordon Stevenson, an engineer and former DNR Chief of Runoff Management who now serves Midwest Environmental Advocates as board secretary.  At an MEA program in May, 2016, Stevenson said, in part: 
For the majority of my career, water policy decisions were based on the strong bond between law and science, the people in charge of making those decisions had conservation and environmental protection credentials, and my colleagues and I shared the belief that Wisconsin's true and sustaining wealth is its clean water.
Much of that is now changed at DNR. Wisconsin DNR's water quality permit program has been found seriously deficient by the US Environmental Protection Agency. DNR is failing to protect downstream water from upstream pollution sources, they are allowing already impaired water bodies to get worse and they are suppressing the public's ability to challenge water quality permit decisions.
Wisconsin DNR's authority to protect Wisconsin's water resources is delegated from EPA. Under the delegation agreement, DNR is obligated to administer the federal Clean Water Act. DNR is not doing so. On behalf of 16 Wisconsin citizens, Midwest Environmental Advocates has filed a Citizens Petition for Corrective Action with the US Environmental Protection agency to correct these deficiencies. The petition seeks to restore the credible water quality protection program that we once had in this state.
We're arriving at an important crossroads in Wisconsin. We have our own version of Flint, Michigan in Kewaunee County where citizens cannot drink the water and we have our own version of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. A dead zone now also exists in Green Bay that runs from the City of Green Bay all the way up to Marinette... 
water policy decisions should be based on the strong bond between law and science, that the people in charge of making water quality decisions should have the credentials to do so, and that Wisconsin's true and sustaining wealth is its clean water."
In an email to me after his remarks , Stevenson also said:
In addition, DNR management has made it clear to staff that environmental advocacy is no longer the core mission of DNR and staff are disallowed from doing so. What was once a guardian of Wisconsin’s natural heritage is now reduced to a rubber-stamping vendor of licenses and permits without oversight.
The past year has really shown me how the GOP is afraid of and caters to their wealthy donors - some of whom aren't even that generous. It was obvious before but this year has been brutal. DNR administrators support any development project regardless of environmental impacts. They are not interested in the environment or public health. If they can't maneuver around the law by bending it, the legislature simply changes the law. 
Rich Republican donors feel free to call up the DNR Secretary and Governor and demand that their projects go through. This puts pressure on legislators and DNR upper management. It has created an atmosphere of desperation at all levels of the DNR.
I have witnessed administrators simply ignoring valid environmental and legal concerns from experienced, competent employees and I have seen administrators ignoring the process for determining environmental hazards when granting permits. It is true that DNR doesn't follow their own processes and skirts the law when possible.
The Secretary's office seems to have a lot of power. And when that power is wielded by an incurious, pro-business person, bad things happen. So far, even in his short tenure, Dan Meyer has proven himself to be the same as Cathy Stepp. 
The only real check on unbridled donor power is the citizen groups and nonprofits who sue. Most of these groups are focused on local problems so it is difficult for the average person to know what damage is being done to other parts of the state.
And let's face it, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin is mostly unsympathetic to the average citizen. The DOJ under Brad Schimel is complicit in twisting the law.
There is a message I would like to send to Wisconsin: Make no mistake, Wisconsin is being sold off piece by piece to rich individuals who own the party currently in the governors office.
And that party is more than willing to promote (for money) the destruction of the environment in order to stay in power. These rich donors (at least the ones I have met) aren't exceptional. They are ridiculously selfish people less worthy and no more intelligent than you. They are stealing your water, polluting your air and compromising your health and wealth. We deserve better. 
Get rid of the politicians who are beholden to and serve these losers. Replace them with people who take your well-being into consideration. You matter.
The DNR would have more credibility on many matters, and the Foxconn diversion review would be seen as more than done-deal kabuki if the agency hadn't also:

* Approved for a sand mine business a permit to destroy rare wetlands and timber - - though recent sworn testimony claimed that senior DNR officials had intervened in the permit review against the assessment of expert staff on the side of the business.

*  Long-promoted an earlier application for a Lake Michigan diversion for the City of Waukesha that included sending diverted water for communities and open space near Waukesha which hadn't applied for the diversion. The application was eventually approved by a body of Great Lakes governors - - a process more complex than what Racine County is likely to win solely from the DNR - -  but the DNR's insistence that the diversion include Waukesha's neighbors, for the most part, was deleted.

* Ignored its own pollution rules in 94% of the cases which came its way.

* Deleted climate change science and related materials from its official website.

* Recommended to its official oversight board that state park land inside a state park be made available to a major Walker donor for upscale, privately-owned golf course construction. 

And also issued a related permit - - the first of several - - so the developer could fill wetlands on his golf course's proposed 247-acre Sheboygan County site along the Lake Michigan shoreline - -a site on which scores of acres rich in timber, wildlife habitat, dunes and native artifacts will be bulldozed, stripped clean and otherwise turned into fertilizer-enriched fairways, putting greens, and a driving range. 

All close to Lake Michigan. Nice symmetry with the Foxconn Lake Michigan diversion pipe not too far to the south off Racine County. 

The DNR as directed by Walker and his hand-picked, big-business friendly team have repeatedly bent and massaged Wisconsin rules and law for special-interest advantage.

So let's build the record, with our eyes wide open.


Judith Guevara said...

It's unfathomable that the governor has permitted destruction of wetlands, contamination of Lake Michigan,destruction of forests, habitat and natural resources. All this has happened for the benefit of big business or, in the case of another golf course in Sheboygan,for the interests of a wealthy contributor. Beyond the voiced objections of WI citizens and reputable environmental studies..does he have any interest in preserving and protecting his state?

Anonymous said...

Why does only money speak for us? Why doesn't truth and law speak for us. We give up- feeling helpless and in the meantime our rights and laws are dismantled behind our backs. This ploy of making new jobs is so Walker can get re-elected and for no other reason. Since when does a company from another country take priority over Wisconsin's well being?? How can we really fight back and have a 50-50 chance of winning??