May 22, 2005

The Case for Clean Fish - Takin' It To the Streets

When the State's annual warning about contaminated fish came out in 2005, 13 lakes and rivers around the state were listed as "hotspots" where kids and women who might want to have children in the future should avoid eating the fish. The problem is mercury contamination, which comes from coal-burning power plants. Mercury is present in coal, and when it is burned to make electricity, it vaporizes and goes up the smokestack into the clouds.

What goes up must come down, and for several years the Illinois Department of Public Health has warned women and children to limit the large fish they eat from ALL Illinois waters due to mercury pollution. The "hotspots" registered even higher levels of fish contamination. Mercury poisoning affects 1 out of 6 American kids, causing brain and other nervous system damage.

One of the 13 "hotspots" is Lake in the Hills, at the center of a fast-growing suburb of the same name in southeastern McHenry County. With no significant industry for miles around, Lake in the Hills is the last place you would expect to find fish that could hurt your kids' brains. It's a powerful example of the cost of coal plant pollution.

This Saturday, Sierra Club volunteers went door to door in the neighborhoods around Lake in the Hills with some information about the state's advisory, to try to protect kids by informing their parents about the risks of eating fish from the lake. Volunteers also distributed a postcard that residents could send to Governor Blagojevich, thanking him for challenging a federal proposal to weaken limits on mercury pollution, and urging him to do better by requiring strict pollution controls on Illinois coal-fired power plants.

Residents were not surprised, in general, to learn of the mercury contamination, and most welcomed the chance to be a part of the solution to the problem. Volunteers met fishermen worried about the safety of their catch, moms who wanted to know what was safe for their kids, and local officials who are looking out for the lake.

If the people of Lake in the Hills have their way, Illinois will soon act to require pollution controls for mercury on our coal plants.

For more information on the State's mercury pollution warning:

May 12, 2005

Illinois EPA Director Renee Cipriano To Leave, Doug Scott Next IEPA Director

Governor Blagojevich announced today what has been rumored for some time, that Director Renee Cipriano will be leaving the Illinois EPA. The Governor also announced that Cipriano's replacement will be Doug Scott, former State Representative and Mayor of Rockford.

Illinois' air and water are cleaner thanks to the work Renee Cipriano has done during her years of public service to the people of Illinois. She has served at least three Governors, as IEPA Director, General Counsel, and Environmental Advisor to George Ryan. She was one of, if not the only agency head from the Ryan administration kept on by Blagojevich. During her tenure at Illinois EPA, Illinois has definitely upgraded safeguards against pollution in our rivers, lakes, and drinking water. Before her time at the helm the Agency was constantly battling clean water advocates in attempts to weaken standards at the behest of industry. We have also made steady progress toward healthy air quality.

Environmentalists often disagree with Illinois EPA, but Renee has always been honest and fair in dealing with citizens and environmental advocates. We wish her the best in the future.

Doug Scott has the experience and skills to be a very successful protector of our land, air, and water. We worked with Scott while he was in the legislature to strengthen environmental laws, and while he was Mayor of Rockford to promote the cleanup of toxic waste sites that threaten public health and impede economic development. His close relationship with the Governor and good relationships with many legislators will be assets for the Agency as well.

We look forward to working with Doug Scott to clean up pollution from coal-fired power plants, enforce the Clean Water Act, and protect Illinois' environment for our families and our future.

May 11, 2005

Wetland Destruction Act Dies In House

Senate Bill 761, which has been dubbed in Springfield the "Wetland Destruction Act", died today after votes for it on the House Energy and Environment Committee evaporated in the face of strong opposition from environmental groups, local governments, the Blagojevich Administration, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan. State Representative Karen May worked tirelessly for wetlands as usual. SB 761 sponsor and Committee Chairman said the bill had been assigned to a subcommittee "for a future hearing...maybe" - Springfield-speak for the legislative recycling bin.

SB 761 faced long odds on the House floor in the face of this opposition, but its failure to even clear the House Energy and Environment Committee today was a surprising development. The Committee is ordinarily deferential to industry lobbyists, and many of the heaviest hitters in Springfield were leaning on members to advance the bill. However, by the end of the day, it was clear that no amount of clout could carry such a strongly anti-environment, anti-local government bill to the finish line.

The defeat of SB 761 is clearly a big victory for citizens across the state who made their voices heard in Springfield. However, it does not provide real protection for wetlands abandoned by the federal government in much of the state. For that, we'll need to craft a new proposal. But with the threat of SB 761 extinguished, we can move on to building consensus for a bill that provides real protection while respecting local authority.

May 04, 2005

House Committee Postpones Consideration of Wetland Destruction Act

The House Energy and Environment Committee today put off consideration of the "Wetland Destruction Act", as Senate Bill 761 has been dubbed, until next Wednesday, May 11th.

The vote was shaping up to be very close today with intense lobbying by realtors and developers for the bill and local governments and conservationists against it. More to come.

May 02, 2005

Springfield Lobbyists Attack Local Authority To Save Lives, Homes, and Businesses From Floods

Anyone who has seen first-hand the damage done by flooding (for instance, if you live along rivers like the Des Plaines, Fox, Rock, Mississippi, etc.) knows that lives, livelihoods, and even whole towns can be washed away.

In recent years our major river systems have lost their best defense against floods – wetlands. Studies of the disastrous floods of 1993 showed that protecting just 3% of the Upper Mississippi River watershed as wetland could have absorbed 100% of that flood. In light of the severe threat posed by flooding, and the importance of wetlands in guarding against this threat, many local governments in Illinois have enacted or proposed common-sense protections for our remaining wetland areas. In northeast Illinois, Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, and McHenry counties have all adopted programs to protect homes and businesses from flooding by protecting their remaining wetland areas from destruction. Now counties in the metro East and the ring of counties around the collars are showing interest in similar programs.

Wetlands act as nature’s sponges, soaking up rainwater that would otherwise gush into river systems and create flood events - a single acre of wetland can store over a million gallons of rainwater. They also happen to filter pollution out of our drinking water, and provide a home for many species of wildlife. Unfortunately, 90% of Illinois’ original wetlands are gone. One can see why local governments don’t want to lose what we have left of these multi-tasking ecosystems.

Now, however, powerful developer lobbyists in Springfield are trying to take away the ability of local governments to protect themselves against flooding by protecting wetlands. Developers are backing Senate Bill 761, which actually prohibits any local government from acting to protect its citizens, homes, and businesses from devastating flooding by protecting wetland areas.

Senate Bill 761 would replace the locally funded, coordinated effort of local governments with a statewide program run by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Dozens of local professionals would be replaced by a handful of bureaucrats in Springfield without the knowledge or funding to do the same job. In the past, when legislators have proposed giving wetland protection authority to Illinois EPA, the Agency registered its opposition, citing insufficient staff to carry out the program.

SB 761 also has a giant loophole big enough to drive a bulldozer through. Any wetland smaller than a half acre would be totally exempt from the bill. Lake County estimates that eliminates protection for over half of their remaining wetlands. For every half-acre wetland that gets filled in under SB 761, where will the 500,000 gallons of rainwater that it is now soaking up end up?

A few overworked bureaucrats in Springfield replacing strong, locally funded flood control programs will worsen the state’s budget crisis, but does it make us safer? If you own a home or business near a floodplain, it should make you nervous, but apparently it makes Illinois’ development lobby hungry. Without local watchdogs protecting communities from flooding, they’re betting they can squeeze a few more lots into a subdivision, avoid flood control requirements, and increase their short-term bottom line, and leave someone else to deal with the water.

Conservationists prefer a wetland protection program that respects the will of local governments to protect their citizens, and to fund these programs locally. Legislation previously approved by the Illinois House would maintain local wetland protection programs, while empowering the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to protect wetlands elsewhere. After all, the IDNR houses the state’s experts in flood control and wildlife habitat.

Senate Bill 761 rejects this idea of partnering with local governments to protect us all. If your goal is to build maximum density on wetlands that used to hold back floodwater, then laying off those who protect us from floods makes sense. For the rest of us, a program that welcomes local efforts to protect wetlands while utilizing IDNR’s expertise seems the best approach.

SB 761 will be heard at 3pm Wednesday in the Illinois House Energy and Environment Committee.