Still Poisoned By WMC – Tone Madison

More infuriating battles on Wisconsin’s road to environmental ruin.

Illustrative: Ghosts and ghouls swarm around the Wisconsin Capitol. Artwork by Maggie Denman.

Every week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad politics, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you highlights (or lows) of the week from the state legislature and beyond.

Water, water, everywhere

The same Waukesha judge who ruled that Wisconsin residents could not use drop boxes also ruled that the Wisconsin environmental agency could not use “spill laws” to clean up waterways contaminated with “eternal chemicals” known as PFAS.

Surprisingly, Judge Michael Bohren sided with right-wing business lobbying powerhouse Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and Oconomowoc-based leather cleaning service Leather-Rich Inc. on Tuesday, ruling that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) cannot enforce cleaning of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) without going through the regulatory process.

It comes after Jefferson County Judge William Hue ruled in January, again siding with WMC, that the DNR can test PFAS but cannot act until standards are established. It was actually a partial victory for the DNR. WMC wanted the agency to stop testing PFAS and be prohibited from publishing the results of tests it had already done, because telling the public about the pollution would be bad for business.

But the reason the DNR has been unable to make formal rules on PFAS is because Legislative Republicans have hijacked the rule-making process. The Joint Administrative Rules Review Committee (JCRAR), co-chaired by one of WMC’s favorite sons, Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), was established in 2017 to oversee the rule-making process, essentially politicizing a process that had once been the purview of state regulators.

In 2019, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, the legislature approved a minimum law that would have allowed the DNR to regulate fire-fighting foam containing PFAS. The bill was in response to widespread PFAS contamination around Marinette. But after passing the Natural Resources Board (NRB), the enforcement rules were shot down by the JCRAR.

Trying to establish general safety standards for PFAS has been equally controversial. In February, the Natural Resources Council approved standards for surface and drinking water at 70 parts per trillion (ppt), more than triple the DNR’s recommendation of 20ppt. But NRB members couldn’t reach a consensus on groundwater standards, even though nearly a million Wisconsin residents get their drinking water through private, unregulated underground wells.

By the way, Fred Prehn, a member of the NRB, who refuses to leave his seat even though his term expired almost a year ago, has decided to remain on the board of directors in order to be able to vote on questions of water quality and wolf hunting, according to emails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It is being activated by Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), who has said he will no longer hold confirmation hearings for Governor Tony Evers’ nominees this legislative session.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin has more than 90 PFAS contaminated sites statewide, including Madison and Dane counties. And since big business refuses to clean up after them, it’s up to local governments, like the city of Wausau, to step in and provide clean drinking water.

The sun is gonna shine in my back door someday

Some good news: The Public Service Commission has approved a solar energy project that will produce enough energy to power a quarter of homes in Dane County. That’s 60,000 homes, all powered by the sun.

Given the looming climate catastrophe, this is excellent news. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that we need to peak emissions in 2025, which The Guardian called “potentially the last warning before the world is irrevocably set on a course of climate collapse”. Additionally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised key questions about the ethics of buying oil from states such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran.

But there must always be a NIMBY. And if there’s anything worse than being a NIMBY Affordable Housing, it’s being a NIMBY Renewable Resource.

Wisconsin Public Radio reported that nearby residents complained “about the project’s effects on aesthetics, property values, loss of prime farmland, battery storage safety issues and its proximity to Cambridge homes and primary school”.

“It rises to the level of the banana, which is Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything,” said PSC President Rebecca Valcq, quoted in the WPR story. “We don’t have that luxury.”

Tara Vasby, a resident of the town of Christiana, told WPR that being called NIMBY was a “slap in the face”.

Sure, conflicts over development can be deadly, but do you know what will really hurt a rural community like Christiana? Climate change. Unpredictable weather patterns of cold, heat, flooding and drought, in addition to more frequent and more extreme storms, will affect us all, but farming communities in particular.

If it were up to me, we would have invested in solar panel technology decades ago, so we would have panels on every home, apartment complex, parking lot, school, government building and private business. It would have shown my generation and everyone who followed us that enough people cared about our future to do what needed to be done. It would have been a nice thing to see.

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