Sunday, November 11, 2018

Fresh allegations about Walker's 'chamber of commerce mentality' DNR

Special-interest politics in Wisconsin is giving way to ramped-up public interest journalism.

The Madison-based Center for Investigative Journalism has published an extensive review of the Kohler golf course proposed along the Lake Michigan shoreline adjacent to, and even into Kohler Andrae State Park. The main project site, a 247-acre nature preserve, is below.

I'm thinking and hoping we're going to hear a lot more from former and current state employees in and beyond the DNR about the influence of politics in decision-making since Walker took office in January, 2011.

For people interested in the Wisconsin environment and how it has suffered under eight years of Scott Walker's corporately-obeisant eight-year assault, I recommend you read every word of the media center's piece with its unforgettable headline:
Former DNR employee: Staff pressured to OK Kohler golf course on rare Wisconsin wetlands and state park
[Former DNR expert Pat] Trochlell said the DNR completed its environmental assessment before seeing detailed plans from Kohler — backwards of the normal process. She assumed Kohler’s request for a wetland permit, required to build the golf course, would never be granted. She was wrong.
Despite their assessment that rare wetlands would be impacted, the agency okayed the wetland permit for the 18-hole course, which would also require removal of up to 120 acres of forest. Trochlell believes the loss of trees, installation of fertilized turf and other changes would negatively affect the area’s dunes and wetlands. 
Trochlell: DNR pressured to approve project
Trochlell determined the project did not meet state standards. But she said her bosses told her the permit should be approved no matter what.  
“I was in a meeting with managers … and I asked the question of what would happen if we wouldn’t sign off on these permits, and I was told that if we didn’t sign off on these permits, we would be … moved to another job or fired, I think that’s how I interpreted it,” Trochlell recalled. 
It's important that the piece ran in The Sheboygan Press. More statewide media need to run or advance it with their own reporting.

Now I also want to provide some context, because this particular case has been a major grassroots fight led by Friends of the Black River Forest at great and unfair private expense for years, and I've gathered some of that history, here.

And also because the trashing of even-handed, scientific and transparent protection of public resources laid out in the journalism center's piece extends to other projects and sites - - remember the rush to approve controversial air emission and water diversion permits for Foxconn - - and beyond the DNR to the Department of Administration and the Department of Justice, too.

Some of this favoritism and inequity I assume will be repaired with policies and appointments that respect law and science and Wisconsin tradition once Tony Evers is installed as Governor in January, although much damage has been done and there are already signs that the outgoing administration intends to leave behind more special-interest dirty work, so, as always, vigilance is the watchword.

Anyway, consider a separate case which raised some of the same issues which had been brought forward earlier by former DNR staffer Trochell:

*  In May, a judge invalidated a wetland fill permit for a sand mining operation after a long-time DNR employe said pressure from senior staffers was brought to bear on the process:
In his ruling, Administrative Law Judge Eric D. Défort said it was "abundantly clear that the DNR did not have the necessary information" to approve a key wetlands permit... 
In his nine-page ruling, Défort devoted considerable attention to the testimony of Pat Trochlell, a wetlands ecologist now retired after working for 37 years at the DNR... 
She testified that staff were prepared to reject the company's permit, but were directed by higher-ups to approve it. 
Not surprising, given that the DNR had already signaled a green light to the rapidly-expanding Wisconsin sand mine operations which serve the oil fracking industry, as State Sen. Kathleen Vinehold had said a few months earlier:
“There’s nobody actually assigned to monitor the sand mines,” she said. “Funds are available but the DNR never hired inspectors.”
You may also remember that there were efforts to circumvent the permitting process altogether with an 11th hour special State Assembly bill which failed when the State Senate did not take it up.

Which, at the time, I put into a broader context: 
This relentless Walker-inspired avaricious attack on the environment, fair play and Wisconsin heritage - - all for the shallowest of 'motivations' - - partisan gain, political position and donor advantage - - began in the early days of the Walker administration.
That's when a Walker donor-developer was granted special permission through interventions by Walker and the Legislatureto build on a wetland near Lambeau Field before a DNR review was completed.
That began a seven-year war - - orchestrated in the Governor's Office, abetted by malleable legislators, fueled by donors and trade groups and dutifully implemented by senior managers in the DNR and other agencies - - kept surface waters polluted and ground water contaminated - - and against all reason is about to hand over acreage within popular Kohler Andrae State Park so a prominent Walker donor can fine tune his plans for an upscale golf course development.
In March, I posted information about the extent of the 'chamber of commerce mentality' Walker had embedded at the DNR, and included observations offered separately by a retired DNR section chief and a current DNR staffer which reinforce what has been disclosed about the sand mine permit and the Kohler project.
Gordon Stevenson, an engineer and former DNR Chief of Runoff Management who now serves Midwest Environmental Advocates as board secretary, said at an MEA program in Milwaukee in May, 2016:
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...
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.


Anonymous said...

Pam Biersach who signed off on the Wetlands permit was suddenly removed from her position as Bureau chief to the Bureau of Forestry. Michael Thompson who was responsible for the Kohler Golf Course EIS and who was the person pushing staff to get this done, replaced Pam. I guess you are damned if you and damned if you don't in this case.

Anonymous said...

I left DNR before full retirement and saw a lot people do the same in my program. Evers has a lot of work to do....I saw so many staffers that were bullied and weren't allowed to do their jobs.