40 Policies That Helped Pollute State
Over last decade state leaders have backed 40 actions that have harmed environment.
Over the last decade, even as the evidence of the global climate crisis mounted, the leaders of this state have not only fiddled, but made matters worse.
During this same time period, other states – including California and some in the Midwest – have acted to try to reduce the problem of global warming.
But not Wisconsin – at least not until very recently.
During the eight years when Scott Walker was governor and Republicans controlled the State Legislature, they passed laws, imposed rules, and implemented policies that adversely affected – and still adversely affect — our land, air, and water quality here in Wisconsin. Many of these laws, rules, and policies contributed to – and still contribute to – the global climate crisis.
A report in December by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, said Wisconsin cut spending for air and water pollution control and hazardous waste programs by 36 percent from 2008 to 2018 – the largest reduction of any state.
Many of the Walker-era anti-climate policies were approved by Republicans because of support from powerful special interests, including business, manufacturing, construction, real estate, transportation, agriculture, and banking. Between January 2011 and December 2019 when most of these proposals were in play, these special interests directly contributed $67.5 million to the campaigns of Republican legislative and statewide candidates.
In addition to direct contributions, four trade associations that spearheaded support for many of these environmental breaks also spent about $43 million on outside electioneering activities mostly to elect GOP candidates to legislative and statewide offices. The groups and the amounts they have spent on outside election support from January 2011 to date were:
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), $26.2 million
Americans for Prosperity, $14.8 million
Wisconsin Realtors Association, $1.3 million
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, about $622,000
Numerous items in this report were tucked into state budgets – often surreptitiously. State budget bills are favored for special interest pet projects because they are the only bills that the Legislature must pass in each two-year session, and legislative votes are not taken on every discrete item.
Here’s a snapshot of what we’ve dubbed the “Filthy Forty” in our report timed for Earth Day: 40 key policies and actions that ignore the threat of global warming:
1. Walker declined to apply to the federal government for $810 million in federal funds to develop a high speed rail route through Wisconsin. In addition to the sunk costs Wisconsin had already committed to the initiative (train sets, track improvements, planning funds, etc.,) the action stymied efforts by Minnesota and Illinois to link up their high speed rail lines. Developing an effective passenger rail system would have lowered the number of polluting vehicles on state highways, reduced carbon emissions, and provided an alternative to travel by less energy efficient autos and planes. https://www.wpr.org/following-wisconsins-high-speed-rail-funding-down-tracks
2. Walker broke the state’s contract with the Spanish company Talgo that was signed by former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who had promised the state would have Talgo perform work to construct rail cars for high-speed rail. Developing an effective passenger rail system would have lowered the number of polluting vehicles on state highways, reduced carbon emissions, and provided an alternative to travel by less energy efficient autos and planes. https://www.wpr.org/following-wisconsins-high-speed-rail-funding-down-tracks
3. Walker’s 2011-13 state budget (2011 Act 32) eliminated the Green to Gold Fund. The fund was a “green jobs” initiative to encourage emerging manufacturing and technology related to the development of clean energy, such as manure digesters and biofuels, so the state could gradually reduce its reliance on foreign oil. The fund offered $100 million in lower cost loans to manufacturers to retool and expand production related to clean energy. Even an incentive program providing state money to help businesses be more energy efficient wasn’t attractive to Walker. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/ab40
4. Walker’s 2011-13 state budget (2011 Act 32) eliminated the Renewable Grants and Loans Program. The program, which was administered by the former Department of Commerce, provided incentives for Wisconsin businesses to develop emerging technologies such as manure digesters and biofuels. Even a program providing state money to help businesses be more energy efficient wasn’t attractive to Walker. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/ab40
5. Walker’s 2011-13 state budget (2011 Act 32) eliminated the Office of Energy Independence. The office provided long term-planning for development of Wisconsin alternative fuels, technologies and business practices to reduce the state’s dependency on energy imported from outside Wisconsin. Continuing to champion the status quo of having Wisconsin residents funnel billions of dollars to out-of-state gas, oil and coal companies, was short-sighted at best. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/ab40
6. Former Attorney General Brad Schimel and former Treasurer Matt Adamczyk effectively imposed a gag rule on the Director of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. The gag rule prevented the director from being involved in any discussions regarding climate change while working on the job. While Walker did not directly vote on the matter, his office issued a statement indicating the policy was not “unreasonable.” The measure was passed by a 2-to-1 vote of the Republican-controlled board. The board manages about 75,000 acres of public, mostly forest trust land in northern Wisconsin worth more than $1 billion in trust assets. This action was an effort to stifle discussion of climate change by an individual and an agency whose mission is to represent the public interest in such issues and manage a natural resource whose well-being is very affected by climate change. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/wisconsin-agency-bans-talk-of-climate-change/
7. Under Walker, there was a conscious effort to ignore, if not hide, even a reference to climate change. “The Wisconsin DNR’s climate change web page contained only one paragraph, offered a single off-site link, and was not updated since June 18, 2012.” This demonstrated lack of concern for climate change helped to suppress public discussion of the issue. https://thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com/2014/04/wi-not-confronting-climate-change.html
8. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employees involved in producing the popular Natural Resources magazine with 84,000 subscribers were told by DNR management not to mention climate change in the magazine. These two related actions underscored efforts to downplay climate change and suppressed a state agency’s ability to discuss the issue. https://madison.com/wsj/news/local/environment/dnr-magazine-cut-seen-as-latest-climate-science-scrub/article_5b924337-8094-5457-aed7-611b47e8435a.html
9. Walker signed 2011 Act 103, which exempted from future liability, parties who discharge hazardous substances in state-licensed landfills if they voluntarily investigate and clean up the property to the DNR’s satisfaction. The liability exemption would extend into the future even if the cleanup ultimately fails to resolve the pollution problem. Enabling e nvironmental clean-ups to be temporary do not provide a long-term solution to such problems. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/sb253
10. Walker signed 2011 Act 118, which removed some wetlands protections and made it easier for certain wetlands to be polluted. Numerous changes made by this law included allowing more time for discharges to be stopped, and permitting discharges into woodland ponds without a permit. This action was an example of the Walker administration appeasing business interests at the expense of the public interest. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/sb368
12. The DNR approved permits for MilkSource, a very large dairy agri-business with several Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly called factory farms, in Wisconsin. Providing state okays enabledMilkSource to expand its operations, which produce significant amounts of methane gas that contributes to global warming and manure that pollutes groundwater, especially from its operations in NE Wisconsin. http://www.dewittllp.com/docs/default-document-library/fof-col-and-order—well—-15595125-v1.pdf
13. Walker succeeded in getting the same mining legislation (2013 Act 1) enacted in the 2013 session that failed in the 2011 session, citing a $1.5 billion investment mining would bring to Wisconsin. Act 1 weakened state mining regulations and environmental protections and sped up the permitting process at the request of a single mining company — Gogebic Taconite. The company later gave a conservative outside electioneering group that supported Walker, a $700,000 contribution. The mine in question never materialized due primarily to changing economics for copper. It would have meant a significant loss of a pristine north woods forest and wetlands environment in both the construction and mining phases, and in long-term threats of pollution because of the mining process. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2013/proposals/sb1
14. Walker signed 2013 Act 378, which created a statewide variance to existing wastewater discharge limits for phosphorus. The variance was available to all facility discharge permit holders, if complying with the phosphorous limits would impose substantial and widespread adverse social and economic impacts and could not be achieved without a major facility upgrade. This action illustrated a lack of concern about pollution by putting a private business interest ahead of the general public interest. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2013/proposals/sb547
15. Walker collaborated with then-Attorney General Brad Schimel in early 2015 on a federal lawsuit challenging state air emissions limits. Walker said the proposed standards would increase electric bills as utilities spend billions to comply, and threaten the state’s manufacturing sector. The limits were intended to protect public health from the effects of air pollution. This action was an example of the Walker policy of appeasing business interests at the expense of the public interest . https://www.wpr.org/environmentalist-group-says-its-confused-walkers-plan-have-state-sue-epa
16. Walker signed 2015 Act 344, which effectively lifted Wisconsin’s moratorium on nuclear power plant construction approved in 1983. The old standards had prevented plant construction absent a means to store nuclear waste generated by a Wisconsin nuclear power plant, and unless the power plant would be economically advantageous to ratepayers relative to other types of power plants. Nuclear power plants continue to be prohibitively expensive to build and there is still no accepted method or facility available to safely dispose of the radioactive waste they generate. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/proposals/ab384
17. Citing a 2016 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Walker ordered state agencies not to do any work to prepare for federal climate change regulations that would require Wisconsin utilities to cut carbon emissions from power plants. His executive order put the regulations — known as the Clean Power Plan — on hold while an appeals court considered a challenge by 27 states including Wisconsin that the rules are illegal. This action was seemingly a conscious effort to undercut any attempts to deal with climate change and use the power of the state’s purse and persuasion to help Wisconsin businesses reduce their greenhouse gases. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/code/executive_orders/2011_scott_walker/2016-186.pdf
18. Walker signed 2017 Act 58, which was a package of financial giveaways worth up to $4.5 billion to Foxconn – a giant, multinational, multibillion dollar Taiwanese tech company – for its southeastern Wisconsin LCD screen manufacturing plant. In addition, the deal loosened or exempted Foxconn’s plant, which is still under construction, from numerous environmental permits and regulations. Foxconn may draw up to seven million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan for manufacturing and then dump it back into the lake; discharge dredged materials or fill wetlands without a permit; alter the course of a stream, straighten a stream or build on a lakebed without a permit; and avoid environmental impact statements. Documents filed by Foxconn with the DNR also show the manufacturing plant will produce significant air pollution, including hundreds of tons of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulates, and volatile organic compounds per year. Foxconn is the epitome of corporate welfare and a government subsidized assault on the environment. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/proposals/au7/ab1
19. Walker signed 2017 Act 118, which allowed utilities and power and water cooperatives to fill up to 9,999 square feet of wetlands without mitigation. This action undercuts the unique ability of wetlands to filter water pollution, limit runoff, and absorb heat. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/proposals/ab497
20. Walker signed 2017 Act 134, which made it easier for sulfide mines to operate in Wisconsin. The act: 1) Eliminated Wisconsin’s requirement that entities seeking to operate a mine first demonstrate they’ve operated a mine which hasn’t polluted groundwater within a 20-year timeframe of initial operation; 2) enabled pollution in groundwater unlikely to be used for drinking water; 3) eliminated special protections for mining operations in wetland areas; 4) prevented DNR from requiring an environmental impact statement for bulk-sampling of potential ores of a possible mining operation; 5) set time deadlines for DNR to act on a proposed mining operation permit; 6) enabled DNR to approve actions that can avoid environmental impacts from groundwater withdrawals, rather than prohibit the actions that would cause the impact; 7) prohibited DNR from requiring modeling of the impacts of a mine on groundwater for longer than 250 years after mine closure; and 8) prohibited DNR from requiring a mine operator to provide financial assurance of any kind not authorized in state law. The changes loosened existing environmental protections to enable mines to operate in the state. The changes increased the chances that a major long-term environmental disaster could occur, all for the hoped for promise of economic development during a relatively short period of mine development and operation. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/proposals/ab499
21. Walker’s proposed 2011-13 state budget (2011 Act 32) proposed eliminating all state funding for local government recycling programs and eliminating the state mandate that communities recycle waste. The legislature restored the mandate for recycling but only restored some of the funding, and a still larger funding cut occurred in the 2015-17 state budget (2015 Act 55). Reusing manufactured materials reduces the need for landfills which give off methane gas, and reduces the need to utilize natural resources in the first place. Minimizing recycling’s role in lowering energy and resource consumption, waste, and pollution, was a missed opportunity to reduce our impact on climate change. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/ab40 https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/proposals/sb21
22. Walker signed 2011 Act 170, which prohibited local governments from enacting shoreland zoning rules stricter than those under state law. This legislation was one of many instances of state government under Walker taking away local government discretion, primarily in areas where local governments want to develop tougher environmental standards or do more to combat climate change, than the state was willing to do under Walker. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/sb472
23. Walker’s 2015-17 state budget (2015 Act 55) contained an item prohibiting local governments from requiring pipeline companies to carry extra clean-up insurance for projects going through their borders. The bill also gave out-of-state pipeline companies the power to condemn private property for oil pipeline operations and projects, authority previously granted only to private corporations licensed to do business in Wisconsin. The bill assisted Enbridge, a company based in Canada with pipelines in Wisconsin, and which had a very large oil pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan. This legislation was one of many instances of state government under Walker taking away local government control, primarily in areas where local governments want to develop tougher environmental standards or do more to combat climate change than the state was willing to do. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/proposals/sb21
24. Walker signed 2015 Act 391, making it easier to develop property in Wisconsin by: 1) Preventing counties from issuing a development moratorium; 2) generally prohibiting a local government from preventing a nonconforming use in a shoreland setback situation involving a variance from rebuilding or remodeling restrictions; 3) enabling nonconforming use permits to be inconsistent with a political subdivision’s plan; 4) allowing an applicant one substitution for an administrative law judge in a contested case hearing involving the DNR or the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; and 5) directing courts to give no deference to a state agency in cases where the agency’s decision can restrict an owner’s use of private property. These changes were very one-sided in favor of private property owners and development of property, even though the cases may involve public benefits and impact natural resources and climate change by helping facilitate development. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/proposals/ab582
25. Walker signed 2017 Act 183, which prohibited local governments from enacting ordinances that would differ from state wetlands protections, and generally chips away at existing state protections for wetlands when there are certain requests to fill them. The changes sought to loosen restrictions on wetland protection for smaller and less important wetlands for agricultural and development purposes, despite the large role that wetlands have in absorbing pollutants and retaining run-off. This legislation was one of many instances of state government under Walker taking away local government control, primarily in areas where local governments want to develop tougher environmental standards or do more to combat climate change, than the state was willing to do. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/proposals/ab547
26. Walker’s 2011-13 state budget (2011 Act 32) repealed provisions that had authorized the Public Service Commission to require utilities to spend more than 1.2% of their annual operating revenues on energy efficiency and renewable resource programs, if approved by the Joint Committee on Finance. In December 2010, the Finance Committee had voted to require contribution levels of $120 million in 2011, ramping up to $256 million in 2014 and thereafter. At that time, PSC staff estimated the 1.2% requirement would generate contribution levels of approximately $100 million in 2011 and 2012, therefore this provision would reduce 2012 contributions from $160 million to $100 million. Extrapolated through 2014, this was a reduction of $340 million. This action was seemingly a conscious effort to undercut any attempts to deal with climate change and use the power of the state’s purse and persuasion to help Wisconsin businesses reduce their greenhouse gases. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/ab40
27. Walker’s 2011-13 state budget (2011 Act 32) eliminated all state funding for the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program, which was intended to encourage the use of local products to help small farmers and reduce transportation costs. Buy Local was a strategy to increase small farmers’ incomes and reduce environmental impacts of agriculture and food processing. It is an example of thinking globally and acting locally. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/ab40
28. Walker ignored the recommendations of his own Transportation Finance Study Commission and refused to support a gas tax increase (in three consecutive budget bills beginning in 2013) to pay for needed highway maintenance and improvements. Walker and the Republican legislature’s failure to even consider raising the gas tax was a lost opportunity to shore-up the transportation fund while encouraging more energy conservation and reducing use of fossil fuels
30. Walker’s 2015-17 state budget (2015 Act 55) effectively eliminated all DNR scientist positions. It severely curtailed the agency’s capacity to assess and understand environmental and natural resources issues. It also made the agency’s policy development and regulatory actions more reliant on industry “experts.” This action harmed the public’s interest in trying to slow climate change by eliminating a means to better understand and effectively communicate the issue. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/proposals/sb21
31. Walker’s 2017-19 state budget (2017 Act 59) ignored DNR staffing shortages, which contributed to delays in processing business permits and lax enforcement of pollution laws. The agency received a net cut of 49.5 positions. Though some DNR functions were transferred to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, that agency also received a net cut of 20.5 positions. Walker’s budget thwarted DNR’s ability to protect the public interest in Wisconsin’s natural resources simply because of business opposition to DNR’s mission. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/proposals/ab64
32. Walker’s 2017-19 state budget (2017 Act 59) ended a school district board’s ability to undertake energy conservation improvements that could have exceeded state-imposed caps on school revenues, thus reducing an incentive to undertake such projects. Instead, such projects were still subjected to being done within revenue limits, unless approved via voter referenda. This legislation was one of many instances of state government under Walker taking away local government control, primarily in areas where local governments want to develop tougher environmental standards or do more to combat climate change, than the state was willing to do. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2017/proposals/ab64
33. Walker’s 2013-15 state budget (2013 Act 20) prohibited challenging an application to the DNR to build a high capacity well, based on the cumulative impacts of the proposed well together with existing wells. Lowering the water table in an area can create significant environmental impacts and to disregard how a new well in concert with existing wells might exacerbate this process, ignores vital information about a scarce natural resource. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2013/proposals/ab40
34. Walker signed 2011 Act 121, which reduced costs for developers of large residential and business developments that generate substantial vehicle traffic or have large parking lots. The law prohibited the DNR from requiring permits for such indirect sources of air pollution. This action enabled Wisconsin to ignore certain negative health impacts of development and not take into account ways that development worsens climate change . https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/proposals/sb111
35. Environmental inspections by the DNR that affected air and water quality, dropped sharply during the first year of Walker’s administration. Inspections declined in most categories, with the total number of inspections decreasing from 3,213 to 2,383 in 2011, a drop of 830, or 26%. “Inspections are a critical component of environmental enforcement by laying the groundwork for a possible referral to authorities for legal action – or more frequently, by catching problems early and getting polluters back into compliance.” Especially in cases affecting human health and drinking water, being able to enforce laws but not bothering to do so was a lost opportunity to protect the environment and limit climate change. http://archive.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/environmental-inspections-drop-in-walkers-first-year-3d5f7o1-152165905.html/
36. Under Walker, enforcement of environmental laws was given a low priority. There were alarming drops in the amounts of financial penalties paid for violations of Wisconsin environmental laws. The amount paid in 2015 was the smallest in over a decade. “Data released by a conservation organization showed forfeitures paid by individuals and companies for violating state law totaled $306,834…down 78% from nearly $1.4 million paid in 2014, the lowest amount paid for violations dating back to at least 2006.” Especially in cases affecting human health and drinking water, being able to enforce laws but not bothering to do so was a lost opportunity to protect the environment and limit climate change. http://archive.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/state-penalties-for-environmental-violations-way-down-b99728093z1-380026741.html
38. Walker signed 2015 Act 303, which prohibited enacting any restrictions on wood burning heaters stricter than those already in effect on December 31, 2014. This law stymied a change in federal law allowing for greater restrictions on such heaters effective February 3, 2015. The change in federal standards was made to recognize wood burning heaters release certain particulate matter that contributes to air pollution and is harmful to public health, and that use of such heaters has increased. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/proposals/ab25
39. Based on Environmental Protection Agency data for 2016, the number of Wisconsin waterways listed as impaired totaled 1,694 listings, over twice the 761 on the list in 2004. A number of environmental groups cited the quest for new jobs in dairy and other agriculture plants as resulting in greater phosphorus and nitrogen pollution from livestock manure, fertilizers, pesticides and byproducts of cheese manufacturing. Combined with cuts to DNR staff under Walker, addressing such incidences of runoff from recently approved mega-farms in agricultural counties like Brown, Kewaunee and Manitowoc became increasingly difficult. Siding with business over the public’s interests is consistent with all other Walker actions during his tenure as governor. https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:rdnDTCpJDCkJ:https://www.greenbaypressgazette.com/story/news/local/kewaunee-county/2016/02/24/number-polluted-waters-state-counties-continue-rise/79367778/+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-b-1-d
40. Governor Walker signed legislation (2015 Act 387) providing numerous changes to state water resource protections, including: 1) Limiting DNR’s ability to look at alternatives to proposed projects impacting wetlands; 2) removing certain DNR authority over boat shelters; and 3) requiring challenges to exemption determinations be brought as a declaratory judgement cases, rather than contested case hearings or for a judicial review of the decision. Overall, these changes reduce the protections provided for certain wetlands in Wisconsin, despite the large role that wetlands have in absorbing pollutants and retaining run-off.
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