Until 2010, our Department of Natural Resources was one of Wisconsin’s hallmark achievements, protecting the environment and the lives depending on it. Indeed, it was Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin senator, who championed environmental stewardship and whose efforts provided the impetus for Earth Day.
With a new administration, Wisconsin has an opportunity to restore this tradition. But the destructive policies and actions taken during the past eight years have been costly, ongoing and not easily undone.
To wit, the Friday before Christmas, the Walker Administration issued a draft permit to We Energies that would allow them to exceed state standards for mercury and arsenic pollution in the water they discharge into Lake Michigan. The mercury variance is more than three times the DNR’s human health and wildlife limit and the arsenic variance is more than six times the DNR’s human health limit.
The DNR, under the new administration, has just held a Feb. 11 hearing regarding the renewal of We Energies’ water discharge permit. Despite being scheduled in the middle of the work day, there was substantial turnout. The 150 or so in attendance overflowed the small room, spilling out into the hallway.
People were allotted three minutes to speak, down from the five originally intended, due to the size of the audience and the many who were determined to be heard. Because this was a hearing, testimony was recorded, but questions were not invited. The audience was assured that their concerns, voiced and written, would be taken into account during the decision-making process, and that another hearing could be requested in response to that decision.
And so, in hopes that the process is indeed open and ongoing, and not a “done deal,” I wish to add my thoughts and feelings to those expressed so fulsomely and passionately a the hearing:
According to Climate Central, an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate, levels of mercury already exceed the safety limits in the Great Lakes, and the mercury level has been increasing for the past decade.
Mercury is highly toxic, and “is most harmful to fetuses, babies and children as it can prevent proper brain development. Children exposed to mercury in the womb are more likely to have problems with memory, attention, language and motor skills.” A recent health survey of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota found that eight percent of newborns had mercury levels in their bodies above the safety limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
And where might so much of this mercury be coming from? No surprise, “Mercury gets into the air and water from manmade sources such as the burning of fossil fuels. An estimated 37 percent of current annual human mercury emissions are due to such burning, mostly coal.”
Moreover, in addition to these variances, the updated permit fails to enforce strict best practices regarding the treatment of coal ash, the residue of burned coal, in a timely manner. Under an EPA rule called the Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELG), coal plants are supposed to stop using a process known as “wet ash handling” by 2020, except in instances where they can prove it would be financially or technically impossible. In those circumstances, they can get approval to push back the deadline until 2023. The proposed water permit would allow We Energies to continue this polluting, antiquated method of dealing with coal ash until, you guessed it, the latest possible date of 2023.
Coal ash (the residue of burned coal) is pure poison. “According to Coal Ash: The toxic threat to our health and environment,” a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility in 2010, “Coal ash commonly contains some of the world’s deadliest toxic metals: arsenic, lead, mercury...These and other toxicants in coal ash can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans. They can also harm and kill wildlife, especially fish and other water-dwelling species.” These toxic pollutants don’t go away. They’re not biodegradable. They’re in the food chain to stay. Whether coal ash is held in ponds or buried in landfills or spilled into Lake Michigan, these poisons don’t go away. And while not so long ago, there were no feasible alternatives, there are now. Clean energy. Renewable energy. Affordable energy, and cheaper than coal today.
So this is a request to the DNR, not from We Energies, but from one of the residents of southeast Wisconsin, to require that We Energies, in its discharge water, comply with Wisconsin’s standards for human health and wildlife safety.
There is no reason or excuse to add to the coal-related pollution of Lake Michigan. The DNR should also require We Energies to implement best practices regarding coal ash by 2020 or sooner. When it comes to our environment, when it comes to public health and safety, there is a world of difference between We Energies and “We, the People.”
Speaking for myself, and on behalf of all who breathe Wisconsin air and drink its water, thank you.