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June 2011 Archives

Will Wisconsin's new DNR chief serve the people, the environment or polluters? Another Overlooked Vapor Intrusion Problem Surfaces

In the wake of the hysteria generated by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's crusade against collective bargaining for public sector workers like teachers and firefighters, a new tea party inspired problem has surfaced in Wisconsin.  This problem concerns the environment. Walker's controversial appointment of Cathy Stepp as Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary has led to a change in the way the DNR is looking to do business.  Apart from the extremely limited experience Stepp brings with her to the job (she and her husband operated their own home construction business and she only served three years on the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board ending in 2001) she has created a leadership team with questionable backgrounds.  Her deputy secretary was previously the executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee and her executive assistant served 16 years as a Republican in the state assembly.   More critically, Stepp's emphasis is on a more streamlined agency, one that will lead to permits that are both greater in number and more lenient. As reported in the June 10 issue of the Isthmus, Rep. Brett Hulsey, a democrat from Madison, said, "The fundamental problem here is that you have the fox in charge of the chicken coop."  He went on to express a concern held by many, "The Walker campaign received hundreds of thousands of dollars from polluters.  Cathy Stepp is the payback for those contributions." The DNR is in place to oversee the protection of Wisconsin's environment and it is meant to serve the citizens of the state.  Instead of serving the citizens of Wisconsin, Cathy Stepp is looking out for DNR's "customers"--the very polluters she should be watching.  Her effort to postpone the implementation of new phosphorous pollution limits, the result of five years of discussion within the Joint Finance Committee, is an example of her mindset.  The rules on phosphorous limits are designed to set water quality standards for waterways, municipalities and industries.  The runoff of phosphorous from fertilizers and industries has led to large algae blooms in lakes and rivers throughout Wisconsin.  Stepp's defense of her desire to postpone the rules that could largely cut down on the phosphorous problem is that it would lead to major problems with the businesses and municipalities which would incur the cost associated with implementing regulatory technology.  But, what is the cost to the environment and to the people of Wisconsin?  The choice of Stepp as the new DNR Secretary may have created a serious problem for the state of Wisconsin.  The mindset that she brings to the job, one which is driven by the pocketbooks of polluters and may not consider costs to the environment and the people, may hurt the environment that Wisconsin citizens hold dear.  In my first post in this blog, I wrote about a vapor intrusion problem affecting people living near the Madison-Kipp plant in Madison.  Walker's choice of Stepp causes us to ask the question: can we trust the DNR with our health and the environment when it comes to issues like these?

Polluters Underestimating Their Pollution: Liars... or Just Idiots?

Maddening, but not surprising.  Business as usual, really. Earlier this week, Japan's nuclear power industry announced that the amount of radioactivity which spewed out of the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor was more than twice the original estimate of just 3 months ago. More than twice. The same report also said that the Japanese people should have been told (but were not) that radioactive contamination caused by Fukushima in even faraway neighborhoods was 1,000 times "normal", far higher than those levels believed to cause long-term health problems.  The reason the people were not told is that Japan's nuclear power industry didn't trust the radioactivity estimates being generated by their own radioactivity monitoring systems. This episode really takes you inside the mind of the polluter when it comes to protecting the people's health.  You see what happened here?  The Fukushima polluters trusted the low "estimates" of the contamination, and so told the public about them, but didn't trust the high "estimates", and so kept them a secret. What I've learned from suing polluters over the last eleven years is that they ALWAYS underestimate the contamination they have caused, how many people it affects, and how much risk it poses to human health. Here's my experience: As I said a few blogs ago, in my first case, the polluter's environmental consultant confidently assured the worried families living near the industrial plant that they were at no risk because the contaminated groundwater had not moved off of plant property......when later testing would show that it had moved ALMOST THREE MILES off of plant property. A few cases later, the people running the leaking landfill were "confident" that dangerous, explosive methane gas had not migrated off the landfill property.....and then testing revealed that the methane had in fact moved THREE-QUARTERS OF A MILE off the property, and had settled underneath hundreds of homes near the landfill. More recently, after the company which owned the polluted plant found chemical contamination in the air inside a home near the plant, it was so confident that this home's contamination was an isolated incident that it didn't test other area homes for another three years.....and when it finally did, it found chemical contamination IN EVERY HOME it tested. This is what you learn: polluters always underestimate pollution.  Always. So, are these so-called "estimates" really just lies the polluter is telling?  Or, are the polluters' low estimates just honest mistakes made in the heat of the moment....in the rush of trying to get information "out the door"?   For those of you inclined to believe that these habitually low estimates are just honest mistakes, ask yourselves this:  when was the last time you heard a polluter OVER-estimate the pollution it caused?  I can say that the next time I hear this will be the first.  If polluters' incorrect "estimates" are truly honest mistakes, then sometimes the estimate should be low, and sometimes it should be high, right?  Isn't that how honest mistakes work?  Not too low ALL THE TIME, right? One justification for underestimates which I hear often --from both polluters and people in government who are supposed to protect the public, but often sound like polluters' spokespeople-- is that "we don't want to alarm anyone with big, scary pollution numbers".  So, what, you lie to them?  You give them phony low estimates, so they won't worry....because they will have no reason to know that they SHOULD be worried? Especially from government, this kind of behavior is shameful.  It's not the government's job, or the polluter's for that matter, to lull people into a false sense of security.  It's to tell them the truth, so that they can protect themselves. So are polluters liars, who purposefully underestimate their pollution? Or are they habitual mistake makers--idiots, really--who just can't get it right? The real answer is that it doesn't matter.  While we can debate forever whether the liar-polluter or the idiot-polluter is more dangerous to your family's health, the truth is that they both are very dangerous, and should not be trusted to help you make decisions about how to protect your family.

Vapor Intrusion Class Action Settlement

The Pollution Lawyers recently received final court approval of an $8.1 million settlement of one of its environmental contamination cases. In late 2008, families in the small town of Attica, Indiana learned that toxic chemical vapors were entering the air inside their homes.  After getting the bad news, these families turned to The Pollution Lawyers for help.  Our class action lawsuit, filed against Kraft Foods Global, Inc. alleged that the volatile organic compounds trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE) and vinyl chloride (VC) dumped at a manufacturing plant owned by Kraft seeped into the groundwater and traveled underneath over one-hundred nearby homes.  Once underneath these homes, the chemicals worked their way into the indoor air.  This process is commonly known as vapor intrusion.  Our lawsuit sought recovery for the damage caused to our clients' property. After two years of litigation, The Pollution Lawyers secured a settlement for our clients that was greater then the assessed value of all the properties in the class.  In addition to the monetary compensation, Kraft has contractually agreed to remediate the groundwater and indoor air contamination.  For more information on our settlement see the following media links:  press release, news video, and newspaper article.

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