Reopelle: Clean Wisconsin leader shocked by Walker agenda
By Brian E. Clark
Keith Reopelle, senior policy director of Clean Wisconsin, has seen a lot of environmental politics over the years and thought he had prepared himself for GOP Gov. Scott Walker's budget.
But Reopelle says he was blindsided by the environmental roll-backs Walker included in his two-year budget plan unveiled on March 1. Walker proposed an end to recycling mandates, reduced phosphorus regulations and the easing of other rules.
“Certainly he is not friendly to the environment, there is no question about that,” Reopelle told WisBusiness.com in a recent interview. “But we didn’t expect this kind of attack on our environmental protections in this state. We didn’t expect that at all.”
The budget came after other signals from the Walker administration. Reopelle called Walker’s pre-budget efforts to slow the move to using more renewable energy short-sighted.
WisBusiness audio“That’s of great concern to us because of his wind-energy moves and also the bio-fuels project at the Charter Street Plant in Madison at the University of Wisconsin,'' Reopelle said.
Walker said he wanted more citizen protections in wind-siting rules and that the Charter Street biomass project was too expensive.
The Walker administration also says it supports a clean environment but says it's necessary to reduce mandates on local governments so they can cope with big revenue sharing cuts.
Reopelle says Walker appears to believe he can promote economic growth by trimming environmental rules. But Reopelle said most Wisconsin residents support protecting the state’s resources.
“Unfortunately, the governor doesn’t seem to understand that we can have strong environmental protections in place and have a strong economy at the same time. In our mind, those two things go hand in hand. Wisconsin has proved that over the years.
“But Walker is really going in the wrong direction in terms of environmental protections, especially in some of the easier, common-sense things like recycling, which makes our communities stronger and also creates jobs.”
Reopelle said he would sum up Walker’s budget bill as “penny wise and dollar foolish.” And in some cases, downright confusing, he added.
“Some of this, like the phosphorus rules, really don’t make sense because that is a federal requirement of the Clean Water Act, so the state can’t phase them out.
“This also puts the regulated community in a very difficult position because this creates uncertainty so they don’t know what the future holds. They were prepared to meet those standards.”
He called the phosphorus rules enacted by the state reasonable.
“We feel like the Legislature and state agencies have done a pretty good job of interpreting the federal laws and how we apply them here in Wisconsin.''
Reopelle said Wisconsin companies that make anaerobic digesters were poised to grow because of the new phosphorus rules.
The digesters can take a variety of organic waste streams from a variety of sources -- including food processing plants and municipalities -- and turn that waste into energy.
“Communities were prepared to do that. Now, if this budget were to pass in this form, it will create uncertainty for them. That will be very problematic, not to mention the fact that it would be in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, which requires this phosphorus standard. So we are really going to need to have it in place in order to comply with federal law.”
Reopelle said he's especially disappointed with Walker because the environmental roll-backs “do nothing to balance the budget.”
“We did not expect this to come from the governor and certainly not in the budget bill. That’s the wrong place to even discuss it.”
Reopelle said he met with the new Department of Natural Resources secretary, Cathy Stepp, and her deputy, Matt Moroney, shortly before the budget bill was unveiled.
“Neither of them gave any indication that this was coming,” he said. “I would love to know if they knew this was on the way. I say that because we were very encouraged by the secretary’s response to what she thought of the phosphorus rules. She was saying all the right things and we were very pleased.”
Reopelle said he is waiting to see the details of the actual language of the budget bill to better understand the potential impact on the environment.
“It is hard to say what we are going to do at this point,” he said. “We don’t know exactly what we are dealing with. We won’t do anything too drastic in one direction or the other until we see the language. From what we’ve seen in the summary description, though, it doesn’t look good.”
Meanwhile, he said he's willing to give Stepp some time on the job before he judges the former lawmaker and builder. Stepp, who is from Racine County, was a state senator from 2003 to 2007 and a member of the Natural Resources Board from 1998 to 2001.
Reopelle said Stepp and Moroney told him they believe jobs can be created while still protecting the environment.
“We completely agree with that,” he said, while warning that his group will be keeping a close eye on the DNR and its actions down the road.
Reopelle said he had hoped environmental groups and the Walker administration could find a “middle ground where we can work together on things like energy efficiency, where it is a win-win-win.
“Where we can reduce people’s energy bills, create jobs and we can also reduce our dependency on coal and other dirty fossil fuels. We think there is common ground where we can benefit the environment and the economy at the same. But it is tough when we are playing defense.”
Reopelle said he worries that Wisconsin’s national reputation as a leader in environmental protection will be lost if Walker prevails.
“We’ve had a good process with a lot of checks and balances,” he said. “I’d hate to see that scrapped.”