Op Ed

Environment Fading As Public Issue

Wisconsin needs a renewed dialogue on the protection of our natural resources.

By - Sep 27th, 2017 12:00 pm
A Greenseam, protected land that acts as a natural sponge for stormwater. Photo courtesy of MMSD.

A Greenseam, protected land that acts as a natural sponge for stormwater. Photo courtesy of MMSD.

Journalist Dan Egan, the foremost chronicler of the challenges to the Great Lakes, recently reported that two more invasive micro-species have been found in the lakes. The story is on the inside pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. More than 180 had already been identified.

He also reported in August also that another giant Asian Carp has been found beyond the electric barriers that are supposed to prevent their entry to one of the world’s greatest fisheries. Not enough alarm bells went off, though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now talking about more incremental controls. Closing the Chicago Canal is the real answer.

Dan Egan, author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. Photo from UWM.

Dan Egan, author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. Photo from UWM.

University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee scientists have highlighted the discovery of a dead zone in the heart of Green Bay. There has been little follow-up dialogue on what to do about it. Lake Erie is in far worse shape.

The drying up of the Little Plover River and surrounding ponds has sparked a debate over the regulation of high volume wells in central Wisconsin, as has the manure disposal from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in Northeastern Wisconsin. But that debate and corrective actions have been insufficient.

In short, environmental issues have almost disappeared from the public debate, except when large scale projects come to the fore, like the proposed, but now defunct, GeoTac iron mine in Northwestern Wisconsin or the pending Foxconn manufacturing plant in Southeastern Wisconsin.

Then, the environmentalists and the economic developers rush to the ramparts and the ideological and partisan battles begin.

It doesn’t need to be that way in a state where political and social innovation has been a historical hallmark. Under the tradition of the Wisconsin Idea, informed citizens and experts from all sides would be called to a problem-solving forum in Madison, and they would come up with a collaborative answer to the environmental challenge.

Often, there is an innovative or technological answer for which the cost is not an undue burden on the developer. As an example, as I have reported before, my company developed a bio-filter and non-emitting ultra-violet inks that together have knocked our VOC (volatile organic compounds) emissions way below state and federal standards. The state shared the capital costs of installing the bio-filter.

A state task force made a run at a compromise to solve the manure issue several years ago. It was a good start, but the CAFOs have gotten even larger and drinking water at residences in Door, Kewaunee and Calumet counties has been compromised. A new task force needs to look for better answers.

Another collaborative model that is working is the Green Seams program initiated by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District. With support from the Department of Natural Resources and local land trusts, MMSD has been buying and reestablishing sponge areas upstream along the Milwaukee River. That program prevents flooding downstream and the need to construct another expensive deep tunnel.

There are consequences for not collaborating, for not compromising. I am guessing that the GeoTac decision to bail out on the mine in Mellen probably had a lot to do with company’s prospects of having to fight through what looked to be an unending flood of legal challenges to its operations.

Similar environmental strife could arise around the Foxconn proposition. Would it not be better for the company and the green lobbies to work out an acceptable environmental management system in advance?

Would not a collaborative model for Foxconn’s green issues avoid citations down the road?

There are pragmatic solutions out there. For instance, Egan points out that one freight train a day could carry the cargo on ships going through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Seaway has proved to be an ineffective commercial channel, but a disastrous avenue for invasives that have greatly damaged the Great Lakes. Only two ships a day go through the Seaway.

Wisconsinites of all stripes, including the next DNR secretary, need to scream for its closure. On the plus side, its expansion has been stopped.

When Cathy Stepp announced that she was leaving her position as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources for a job in the Trump Administration, her critics made a big deal out of the falloff in citations on business during her DNR watch.

Stepp worked hard with businesses to put best practices into place that headed off violations and citations. Isn’t that what we all want?

As Gov. Walker decides whom to nominate to replace Stepp, he needs to avoid the ideologues on the right and left. They want confrontation and headlines, not solutions.

The state needs a DNR secretary who understands the Wisconsin Idea.

The state also needs a renewed dialogue during the next gubernatorial campaign in 2018 on the protection and conservation of our greatest asset, our natural resources.

There are votes to be had by a green candidate who can balance the advances of the environment with advances of the economy.

John Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a former Milwaukee Sentinel business editor who blogs regularly at johntorinus.com.

Categories: Environment, Op-Ed, Politics

10 thoughts on “Op Ed: Environment Fading As Public Issue”

  1. Virginia says:

    John, thanks for this thoughtful analysis.

    More factors in Wisconsin’s previously effective policies re: natural resources. Being responsible about environmental issues and conservation (going way back) indeed HAD BEEN very good for economic development. That includes all the related tourism provided by those natural resources, as well as the high quality of life those resources foster. In turn, that QOL is essential to attracting and retaining the residents essential to having a viable statewide tax base. That includes having state parks that do not gouge the users they intend to attract.

    Current GOP legislation and Stepp’s DNR management approach gave preference to only developer concerns, demands and lobbying, often at the expense of the long-term health of both the state’s resources and long-term economic prospects. Legislators and DNR leadership (likely to be Dan Meyer) need to recognize that being responsibly “green” actually is good for all of the state’s businesses.

  2. Sue says:

    ‘Would it not be better for the company and the green lobbies to work out an acceptable environmental management system in advance?’
    The company has no incentive to work with environmental groups. Not when the Legislature bypassed the appeals court process and is allowing Foxconn to take challenges directly to the Supreme Court. Or when the Legislature requires all challenges to be put on hold while the ‘appeals’ process unfolds.

  3. Virginia says:

    Sue, in theory what you suggest may have some merit, but it still upends the role of government–and the fact that laws are supposed to appeal equally and to all. If the biggest corporations, including ones based in other countries, get to create their own “acceptable environmental management systems” in advance, it’s just another version of oligarchy/plutocracy.

    And who might enforce such agreements, with the legislative and judicial roles being bypassed and abdicated?

  4. daniel golden says:

    Torinus is apparently trying to convince us that some sort of partnership could be possible between developers and environmentalists in Wisconsin under GOP control. As a conservative Republican, it should be no surprise to Torinus that the modern GOP is like Wurlitzer juke box: put your money in and they will play your tune. Any op-ed writer who can find good things to say about Cathy Stepp’s tenure as head of the DNR would be better served writing fiction. The DNR has become a shell of its former self under Stepp’s mismanagement. The bulk of the scientists in the DNR are gone or re-assigned to where their science will not get in the way of corporate donors who desire to exploit the environment for short term profit. Ask the rural small farmers and residents in Northeast Wisconsin whose wells are being increasingly poisoned by Stepp’s “best practices” what they think of her management of the DNR. Walker knew precisely what he was doing when he put a realtor with a high school diploma in charge of an agency that requires an understanding and analysis of science: a rubber stamp for polluters.

  5. MKE kid says:

    daniel golden: I have family in Kewaunee and Brown counties. Even though they have not been personally compromised YET by the CAFOs being given the full steam ahead and to hell with the everyone else by Walker and Stepp, they know others who have had their wells contaminated by e coli. Others’ wells have dried up. Don’t forget the “dead zone” in Green Bay caused by massive manure runoff.
    Thanks, Walker. You have such a talent for doing these sorts of things. Green lights to polluting corporations and to hell with the little people. I guess the little people don’t donate enough.

  6. It may be useful to understand the historic context for what has happened. Wisconsin was a pioneer and leader in the environmental movement that cleaned our air and water. It was a leader on both the national and international levels, with Gaylord Nelson being a driver behind the first Earth Day. Today, it is a backwater, down there with oil industry environmental disasters like Louisiana, but at an earlier stage of decay.

    So what happened? The environmental movement gained force during the early stages of the reactionary movement that started with white backlash. Over time, racial animosity, linked to the power of individual wealth and corporate muscle made reaction the dominant force in American politics, with the Republican Party as its vehicle.

    The reactionary right knew that most people believed in the basics of “liberalism,” Social Security, Medicare and environmental protections, and that they would not want to give them up. So their clever – and very successful – strategy was not to attack these programs, but to discredit government and glorify the genius of business. (There is an extraordinary book on this subject, “Democracy in Chains,” by Nancy MacLean.) And to make “liberalism” a dirty word.

    It worked. Starting with Reagan, hatred of government became a centerpiece of reactionary politics, much of it focused on the theme of the hard-earned tax dollars of white people going to welfare queens. But, at the corporate level, gutting environmental laws was way more important than race baiting, which would be the red meat for “the masses.” So, the creation of phony think tanks like the Heartland Institute and Heritage Foundation, along with the purchase of politicians, became the centerpieces.

    From its position as a global leader, no state has fallen further than Wisconsin, as Walker and his team piloted Trumpism in its many forms, environmental destruction being just one of them; just one, but possibly the most important to his benefactor David Koch and the little Kochs.

    People use the term “plutocracy,” which is pretty much what we have become. Is there a way out? History doesn’t have that many pleasant answers. In describing reactionary movements, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “It is the first step in sociological wisdom to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur….” Those major advances were social insurance, the extension of basic civil rights to the “others” via civil rights laws, and the great achievements of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and related laws and regulations. In the age of Walker, Trump and the rest, they are all at risk.

  7. MKE kid: Did you used to post comments on JS Online, have malts at Leon’s, and attend seminars at the University of Lawsoonomy? (robbies)

  8. Richard Nwabuzor says:


    America has been a country for rich white men since its inception. Tom Barrett is a corporate slave also.

    Agreed with all of what you said – Black male from the North Side of Milwaukee.

  9. MKE kid says:

    Frank Schneiger/robbies: Yep. That’s me. The Kielbasa Kid. I dropped my JSO sub a couple of years ago. Wasn’t worth it to read the innumerable Tea Pot commenters from out of state &/or Russia. Still miss the rockin’ reuninons at the U of L.

  10. Virginia says:

    One of Wisconsin’s key industries HAS been tourism. Caving in to CAFO’s has resulted in the recent drying up of lakes affected by the depleting of aquifers that support them. Others are poisoned by runoff. When this happens, the value (included for taxation) of those homes drop and the lives of families, including business owners, drastically change. I know of one case where a community bought a large farm and placed it in conservation, to try to ward off such degradation.

    Now Walker & Company have designed to let our Great Lake be drained by a ruthless foreign company without the usual environmental oversights. As noted by others, Wisconsin has become the example of how fast a state can fall so fast.

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