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Capitol Punishments: Forever poisoned by WMC

Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

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

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Water, water, everywhere

The same Waukesha judge who decided Wisconsinites can’t use drop boxes has now also decided that Wisconsin’s environmental agency can’t use “spill laws” to clean up waterways contaminated with the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.

Surprising no one, Judge Michael Bohren on Tuesday sided with right-wing business lobbying powerhouse Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and Oconomowoc-based leather cleaning service Leather-Rich Inc., ruling that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) can’t enforce the cleanup of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) without first going through the rulemaking process.

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This comes after Jefferson County Judge William Hue ruled in January, again siding with WMC, that the DNR can test for PFAS but cannot take action until standards are set. This was actually a partial victory for the DNR. WMC wanted the agency to stop testing for PFAS and to be barred from posting results from tests already conducted—because informing the public about pollution would be bad for business.

But the reason the DNR hasn’t been able to make any official rules on PFAS is because Legislative Republicans have hijacked the rulemaking process. The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR), co-chaired by one of WMC’s favorite sons, Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), was created in 2017 to oversee the rulemaking process, essentially politicizing a process that had once been the purview of state regulatory agencies.

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

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Trying to set broad safety standards for PFAS has been equally contentious. In February, the Natural Resources Board approved standards for surface and drinking water at 70 parts per trillion (ppt), more than triple the DNR’s recommendation of 20ppt. But the NRB’s members couldn’t reach a consensus on groundwater standards, even though almost a million Wisconsinites receive their drinking water through private, unregulated groundwater wells. 

By the way, NRB member Fred Prehn, who refuses to leave his seat even though his term expired almost a year ago, decided to remain on the board so he could vote on water quality issues and the wolf hunt, according to emails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is being enabled by Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), who has said he would not hold any more confirmation hearings for Gov. Tony Evers’ nominees this legislative session.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin has over 90 PFAS-contaminated sites across the state, including in Madison and Dane County. And since big business refuses to clean up after itself, it’s up to local governments, like the City of Wausau, to step in and provide clean drinking water. 

The sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday

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

Given the encroaching climate disaster, this is great news. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report says we need emission to peak in 2025, which The Guardian called “potentially the last warning before the world is set irrevocably on a path to climate breakdown.” Plus 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’s always got to be a NIMBY. And if there’s anything worse than being an affordable housing NIMBY, it’s being a renewable resource NIMBY.

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

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

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

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Sure, conflicts over development can prove bruising, but you know what’s really going to hurt a rural community like Christiana? Climate change. Unpredictable weather patterns of cold, heat, flood, and drought, on top of more frequent and more extreme storms, are going to impact us all, but especially farming communities.

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

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