The dirt on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s environmental record
Wisconsin is a proud state, with a unique political legacy. Its track record of progressive independence and long-standing commitment to political comity make today’s recall election an aberration, a rare example of a Wisconsin turned against itself — and a rare national example of political turmoil.
The last recall election of a governor in the United States was California’s in 2003, a campaign I worked on. A friend from those days, Clark Williams, is today in his home state of Wisconsin working to turn out voters to recall Walker. I asked him how the two elections compared. “Night and day,” he responded, noting the “venom” that has polluted any rational conversation about the election. It’s a common refrain: A recent poll found that one in three Wisconsinites had stopped talking about politics with someone because of their disagreement. There are reports of physical altercations between supporters of either side. This is not exactly the ebullient, cheese-loving Wisconsin we picture.
Neither are the decisions being made by the governor the ones many state residents expected. The fuse for the recall was lit with Gov. Walker’s move to cut collective bargaining rights for the state’s public sector unions, but that’s not the only gripe state residents have with the governor.
The environmental community has its own (good) reasons for complaint. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is very engaged in the recall, with lawn signs opposing Walker throughout the state and a robust collection of “Failure Files” online outlining Walker’s anti-environment policies. And I mean robust. They’re worth a perusal.
For those pressed for time, or on the way to the polling booth, here’s an overview we assembled: Scott Walker’s Murky, Polluted Environmental Record.
An open door to the Koch brothers
We’ll start with everyone’s favorite bad guys: the Kansas Kochs, the Emperor Palpatines working the controls of a sprawling fossil-fuel empire. If you’re not familiar with the Koch brothers, welcome to planet Earth.
Within a month of Scott Walker taking the oath of office, the Koch brothers (who’d contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign) opened a new lobbying office across the street from the state capitol, more than doubling their lobbying force in the state from three to seven people.
Walker, despite having never met the brothers at that point, was very willing to hear them out. When a prankster from the site Buffalo Beast phoned Walker, pretending to be David Koch, Walker happily discussed fundraising plans, his war against the unions, and how much he’d enjoy being flown out to California for some recreation.
In February, the real David Koch reiterated the brothers’ commitment to Walker, saying, “We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.”
Weakening pollution standards
So why would the Kochs care about Wisconsin? Simple. Walker’s willingness to roll back environmental protections that get in the way of the Kochs’ profits.
Take phosphorous. The Kochs own Georgia Pacific paper, the Wisconsin plants of which spent years dumping excess phosphorous into the state’s waterways. In 2010, an appeals court ruled that the public could challenge the permit that allowed the company to do so, while the state’s natural resources board adopted new regulations to cut down on the dumping. Enter Walker. His first budget bill included a passage that would reduce the board’s new limits; a separate announcement put a two-year moratorium on the 2010 phosphorous rules.
Stunting wind power
There’s not a lot of reason to oppose wind power, unless you’re simply making decisions to score political points. Ahem.
Prior to Walker’s taking office, the Wisconsin legislature established setback rules determining how far from nearby homes a wind turbine could be built. Gov. Walker — with the support of the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council — championed a bill that made those setbacks much, much larger — a jump from about 450 feet to 1,800 feet. The change prompted at least one wind company to cancel plans to build in the state.
Undoubtedly, Walker’s move made fossil-fuel companies smile wanly over their hot, steaming mugs of evil.
Accepting rail money, but not for high-speed rail
To be fair, Walker campaigned on stopping high-speed rail. The campaign owned NoTrain.com, probably because MeHateTrain.com was taken. But that didn’t stop him from asking for $150 million from the federal government for other rail upgrades given that, you know, rail is important to states. Scoring political points by opposing hippie green rail is a good thing, apparently, but that doesn’t mean you have to oppose rail. Or … something?
Facilitating fracking across the country
Wisconsin may not be over the famed Marcellus Shale formation, but that doesn’t mean that Scott Walker can’t get some of that filthy fracking lucre.
Instead, Wisconsin sits atop the remnants of an ancient ocean, the sandstone from which is ideal for fracking. In July of 2011, there were between 22 and 36 sand facilities approved or operating in Wisconsin. Seven months later, there were over 60 mines and 45 processing facilities. Residents who had petitioned the natural resources board to limit the amount of silica allowed in the air around the mines found the board’s Walker-appointed head unresponsive to their concerns. Which was as Walker intended; he explained his choice to head the board as wanting “someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality.” He got it.
Deregulating open-pit mining
What happens if Walker remains in office? That’s to be determined. But he’s already outlined one planned change: deregulating open-pit mining. Open-pit mines create an enormous amount of waste and pollution and are generally tightly controlled by the areas in which they’re present.
As noted above, these issues are just the tip of the melting iceberg — and for the residents of Wisconsin, just one aspect of why Walker faces such stiff opposition. Clark Williams, my friend in the state, says that no matter the reason people oppose Walker, “the narrative remains the same: recall the governor to end the civil war and restore the Wisconsin Way” — that is, working together for the good of the state.
Including, presumably, breathable air, drinkable water, and a state not pockmarked with unregulated mines.