New Clean Water Standards “An Important Step Forward” According to
Environmental Law & Policy Center
CHICAGO – Today, the Obama Administration issued new clean water standards that are an important step forward to protect safe drinking water and healthier community rivers, streams and wetlands in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. ELPC and many of our allies across the nation have worked to achieve these new standards for many years. These standards have been informed by public input, are well grounded in the law, and are based on sound science.
Today the Obama Administration issued new clean water standards that are an important step forward to protect safe drinking water and healthier community rivers, lakes and streams in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds.
ELPC and many of our allies across the nation have worked to achieve these new standards for many years. These standards have been informed by public input, are well grounded in the law, and are based on sound science.
This is a big deal. Water resources are so interconnected that in order to protect our celebrated waterways – the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes – we also need to protect the backyard brooks, community creeks and steady streams that feed them. That’s what these new clean water standards accomplish.
Now let’s work with EPA and people and businesses in Midwest communities to advance these sensible clean water standards and make them work well going forward.
The newly formed non-profit, Friends of the Big Sioux River, held a press conference last Thursday to announce its vision to realize “a clean, healthy river for all to enjoy and share with pride.” In 2012, the Big Sioux was identified as the 13th dirtiest river in the nation. Friends of the Big Sioux River was formed to bring awareness to the current condition of the waterway and to inspire action among all who influence its quality. Matthew McLarty of the Environmental Law & Policy Center of South Dakota, Greg Veerman of Astronaut Studios and Friends of the Big Sioux River director Dana Loseke outlined their vision on Dakota Midday.
A new group wants to encourage Sioux Falls and other watershed communities to do more to clean up the Big Sioux River.
Friends of the Big Sioux River (FBSR), a collective of local environmentalists, conservationists and business leaders, will formally launch at a press conference Thursday morning. The group wants to convince communities along the Big Sioux that South Dakota’s dirtiest river is worth caring about.
Matt McLarty, a policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said despite millions of dollars’ worth of investment along the river from Sioux Falls and the ag industry, there’s been little progress to improve the quality of the water that flows between the banks of the Big Sioux.
“The city has invested quite a bit in the shores of the Big Sioux. But it’s really time to pull the focus back to the waterway itself,” he said.
The Big Sioux River is thirteenth on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of most polluted rivers. The first step toward improving its status is making people aware just how polluted it is, McLarty said.
SCOTUS: Amtrak Has Legal Authority to Set On-Time Performance Standards
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today affirming Amtrak’s power to create on-time performance standards could get slumping Midwest arrival times back on track.
“This is a good Supreme Court decision that should help rail passengers across the country,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. “For every passenger who has been delayed for hours in Northwest Indiana or outside of Cleveland while oil tanker cars slog by, today’s court decision can be an important step forward.”
The Association of American Railroads challenged a federal law that allows Amtrak to help set on-time performance standards for railroads, arguing that Amtrak is a private company rather than a government entity. The Supreme Court, agreeing with the Department of Transportation and ELPC, held that Amtrak is more like a government entity.
The DC Court of Appeals had struck down a provision of the 2008 rail reauthorization bill that instructed the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak—consulting with the Surface Transportation Board, freight railroads, states, rail labor, and rail passenger organizations—to develop metrics and minimum standards for measuring Amtrak passenger train performance and service quality.
“Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling settles that legal question,” Learner said. “Amtrak is a government entity. Given this ruling, the existing on-time performance standards should be enforced and passenger rail should again be given priority.”
In an amicus curiae brief filed by ELPC, on behalf of itself and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, All Aboard Ohio and Virginians for High Speed Rail, ELPC found that on-time arrival rates had suffered since the appeals court ruling. In 2012, Amtrak achieved a nationwide on-time performance rate of 83 percent. Since the standards were invalidated by the Court of Appeals, on-time performance fell to an abysmal 42 percent.
While this is a major victory for Amtrak passengers across the nation, the Supreme Court’s ruling does raise the possibility of a lengthy court fight should the Association of American Railroads seek to continually litigate other issues around on-time performance.
“The highest court in the land has spoken and we hope is that freight railroads will move forward as a partner to improve passenger rail service across America,” added Learner.
Today the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to authorize $8 billion in Amtrak funding. While the U.S. Senate still needs to consider the matter, this vote is a victory for ELPC and allies, who have been fighting back against anti-Amtrak amendments – including one introduced earlier this week that would have eliminated all funding for Amtrak, effectively ending all long-distance and state Amtrak train service.
Almost 700 ELPC followers and thousands of others throughout the country wrote to their Members of Congress with a clear message: Americans want a strong national train network and elected officials who support. This grassroots support played a huge role in securing today’s bipartisan vote.
Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter Published: Friday, February 27, 2015
Ask Chicago environmentalists who’s the Windy City’s best lawyer, and they’re likely to name Howard Learner.
Learner has built his Environmental Law and Policy Center into a Midwest powerhouse over the last 20 years on transportation and clean energy issues, scoring victories in courtrooms and state legislatures along the way.
His shop eschews the national spotlight for a hyper-regional focus that he says is part of the group’s DNA.
“First of all, we are Midwesterners,” he said. “The Midwest is probably the most important region in the most important country in the world.”
ELPC is among a few regional environmental law centers that operate in the gap between national Goliaths like the Natural Resources Defense Council and small grass-roots organizations. The center takes on major litigation — fighting lawsuits brought by former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, arguing for solar and wind energy in state Supreme Courts, and battling Great Lakes pollution. Moreover, it has developed a lobbying operation that pressures government officials — from U.S. senators to mayors — to support environmentally progressive policies.
Learner prides himself on leading a “grass-tops” organization, meaning it seeks to unite leaders from often-opposing camps — such as unions and local chambers of commerce — to push for common goals.
Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but ELPC is now thriving, thanks largely to Learner’s grasp of regional politics.
“He has steered clear of the weird political fights,” said J. Paul Forrester, an energy and agricultural specialist at Mayer Brown in Chicago. “He has a lot of political acumen. I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s helped him avoid ugly confrontation.”
Learner, 59, lives a mile-and-a-half from where he was born in Chicago. The son of a University of Wisconsin football player, he’s well over 6 feet tall and bearded. He cuts an imposing presence that he establishes right away with a firm handshake.
Growing up as an outdoorsman, Learner biked across Wisconsin several times and always had a backpack ready for weekend trips. He attended the University of Michigan and remains a devoted fan of the Wolverine football team, then headed to Harvard Law School.
He returned to Chicago with his law degree and worked for a public interest law firm that specialized in housing cases. Learner launched the group’s environmental practice and specialized in pro bono work.
In 1991, seven major foundations pooled funds and asked several local lawyers for proposals for a regional-based legal center to address environmental programs in the Midwest. Such a group didn’t exist, and, as Learner recalled, there were ample reasons the region needed one.
The Great Lakes contain nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. At the time, electricity utilities were becoming more regionally focused, building power lines across state borders. The Midwest was also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Three-quarters of the pollution in the Great Lakes was coming from the energy and transportation sectors.
The region also served as the nexus of multiple types of transportation; interstate highways crisscross the area, as do major railways. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport serves as a hub of air travel in the region.
“If you are serious about solving our climate change problems, and you’re serious about keeping the Great Lakes clean,” Learner said, “you need to deal with the energy and transportation sectors on a regional basis.”
Learner applied for the funding, basing his proposal in part on other regional outfits like the Conservation Law Foundation in New England, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on the West Coast, which has since become Earthjustice.
The foundations backed Learner, guaranteeing $850,000 per year for three years. He left his practice, rented a storefront and started assembling furniture.
At the core of the group’s philosophy from the start, Learner said, was devising “pragmatic solutions” that paired environmental benefits with economic growth and job creation. Now such proposals are increasingly common among environmental groups, but at the time they weren’t.
Learner pledged that whenever his group came out against a project or proposal, it would say yes to a less harmful alternative.
“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to get boxed in as naysayers,” he said.
ELPC now has an annual budget of more than $6.5 million and about 50 employees in eight offices throughout the Midwest. It divides its efforts into two groups. Its strategic advocacy arm lobbies and files lawsuits to fight what it views as environmentally harmful policies. And second, it brings parties together to come up with “eco-business” deals and proposals, such as working with labor unions, local chambers of commerce and officials to facilitate solar and wind energy development in the Midwest, or a regional high-speed rail network.
Those efforts have yielded results. Iowa is the second-largest wind energy producer in the country, and Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas all rank within the top 10. And plans for a regional high-speed rail proposal to serve 60 million people in eight states are starting to jell. The St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-Detroit line is being built, and sections already run at 110 mph. The effort has garnered the support of the Obama administration, which committed $13 billion in the 2009 stimulus package.
Looking for opportunity
ELPC’s success is due in large part to Learner’s relentlessness.
Jerry Adelmann, president of the Chicago-based Openlands conservation group, said it typically takes Learner “two seconds” to respond to an email.
“He lives and breathes this stuff,” Adelmann said. “It’s part of his very being.”
To his foes — which are typically entrenched energy utilities — Learner can come off as a zealot. But he has overcome such criticism through political adeptness, which is unusual for someone who wears his Democratic-leaning politics on his sleeve.
Learner was Illinois delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and has served on political committees that others in the nongovernmental organization community would likely shy away from out of fear of reprisals from the other side.
“Howard is out front in terms of his politics,” Adelmann said.
Learner seems to dodge most blowback, though, largely because of his instincts.
“I think Howard is one of those visionary leaders,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. “His mind is always spinning, and he sort of sees the direction that things are moving. He is constantly trying to anticipate what opportunities will present themselves and constantly trying to take advantage of them in a strategic way.”
That doesn’t mean ELPC doesn’t have critics.
Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible to have a “reasonable conversation” with ELPC. But he stressed that the group often presses for more stringent environmental controls than his members can support.
“Bottom line is, we think a big part of their agenda results in very little environmental improvement but huge costs,” Maisch said.
He added that ELPC’s coalition building is often less successful than the group says.
“Their attempts,” he said, “to bring people together to build a consensus — a lot more of those fail than succeed.”
Battling energy tycoon
Learner and ELPC can nevertheless point to significant achievements, both on the large and small scale.
ELPC was part of a coalition that pushed for the closure of two old power plants in 2012 on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s last two coal-fired facilities. Before that, it fought to ensure that wastewater was treated before utilities discharged it into the Chicago River.
And last summer, ELPC lawyers secured an Iowa Supreme Court victory in challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision that created an unfavorable and expensive environment for solar energy development in the state.
There is also a strong “defender of the little guy” thread to their work. Perhaps no case illustrates that better than ELPC’s work for a small community in Saugatuck, Mich., against former Chesapeake CEO McClendon.
An artsy Lake Michigan resort town with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Saugatuck is a 2½-hour drive from Chicago. In summer, tourists visit the town’s art galleries, shops and renowned beach dunes. The community has sought to protect those attractions from development by passing strict zoning laws.
Those efforts were threatened, however, in 2007, when McClendon bought 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River that the town had been trying to make part of the public domain and conserve for 50 years.
McClendon wanted to build a gated community and resort on the land, with a nine-hole golf course, hotel, mansions and condos. Within 30 days of purchasing the property, he filed a series of lawsuits challenging Saugatuck’s zoning laws.
Overwhelmed, David Swan and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance turned to Learner for help.
ELPC took the cases, and Swan said the group’s attorneys became part of the community. They also provided communications and marketing support to Swan and his allies.
They were able to halt McClendon’s development. In November 2011, a federal district court judge threw out a settlement between McClendon and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have essentially removed zoning provisions from the property. The judge ruled that the settlement would have illegally prevented the board from ever updating its zoning laws for the property.
Further, the court held that any future such settlement would require a hearing to ensure it benefits the “public good.”
There remains some ongoing litigation, but the community has since bought back half the land McClendon purchased. And, Swan said, nothing has been built on McClendon’s land.
Swan credits ELPC with saving the dunes — and his community.
“It just kind of amazed me,” Swan said. “Here was a really brilliant attorney, who is really busy with huge projects, and he doesn’t let small projects like trying to save 400 acres of pristine duneland fall by the wayside.”
On Friday, Feb. 6th, ELPC Senior Policy Advocate Andy Olsen spoke at the USDA’s National Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) Stakeholder Forum, which outlined program improvements since REAP’s recent overhaul and highlighted stakeholder successes. To access a free webcast of the event, click here.
ELPC has achieved strong successes in challenging times, demonstrating that smart, strategic legal and policy advocacy can both improve environmental quality and grow the Midwest’s economy. ELPC’s solutions-focused strategies engage diverse partners and seize opportunities to make a fundamental difference in accelerating clean energy development and clean transportation technologies, protecting clean air and clean water, and preserving the Midwest’s special wild and natural places. Our multidisciplinary staff teams of expert public interest attorneys, M.B.A.s, policy advocates and communications specialists, combined with sound science engagement from ELPC’s Science Advisory Council, play to win and know how to get things done—truly making a difference for a better world.
We’re on the cusp of fundamental environmental changes. New solar energy, wind power, battery and lighting technologies can help clean up and transform the electricity sector. The Obama Administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan will, in effect, impose a price on carbon pollution while allowing flexible pollution reduction strategies that can be sculpted for effective solutions in each state.
ELPC’s advocacy led to the nation’s largest-ever investment in high-speed rail, including $2.6 billion for developing the Midwest rail network. Modern, faster, more comfortable new trains are being manufactured in the Midwest, creating jobs and spurring economic growth. The Midwest is a proving ground for the rest of the nation: higher-speed rail is arriving, with ELPC’s leadership.
Innovative car technologies – all-electric vehicles, gas-electric hybrids, fuel cell, CNG and others – combined with better designs and lighter materials are reducing
pollution from the transportation sector while lifestyle and economic changes lead to fewer people driving
cars and fewer vehicle miles traveled.
President Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has bipartisan support and sustained appropriations, which have largely avoided political squabbling. The projects supported by $1.3 billion of federal funds over the past four years are achieving real results for restoring the Great Lakes ecological system.
This is an exciting and challenging time for ELPC’s Board and Staff to seize these opportunities for environmental quality and economic development progress. We’re proud of ELPC’s accomplishments in helping transform our Midwest home into a cleaner and more vibrant place to live, work and play.
Howard A. Learner and David Wilhelm
ELPC Executive Director and Board Chair
Protecting the Midwest’s Prairies, Wilderness & Great Lakes
ELPC’s strategic litigation and advocacy campaigns provide our Midwestern conservation colleagues with first-rate legal firepower when necessary to protect treasured natural resources. ELPC public interest attorneys work in both the federal and state courts, and in the court of public opinion, to protect the Great Lakes, Mississippi River and the Midwest’s special natural areas, threatened species and wildlife habitats. ELPC establishes key legal precedents that protect our natural heritage now and for the future.
Protecting the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie – Challenging the Proposed Illiana Tollway. Midewin is our country’s first national tallgrass prairie and is home to northeastern Illinois’ largest, most diverse community of grassland birds. ELPC and our clients Openlands, Midewin Heritage Association and Sierra Club are challenging the boondoggle Illiana Tollway, which threatens the Midewin Prairie and wildlife habitat with damaging noise, light and pollution from convoys of heavy trucks. ELPC’s federal and state court litigation, combined with our media and public education campaign, has exposed the financial folly of the Illiana Tollway and its destructive impacts on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. In October, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Board again voted overwhelmingly against adding the Illiana Tollway to the regional plan. The Illiana Tollway is now the hottest transportation battle in Illinois.
Defending the Sylvania National Wilderness Area. Sylvania is a beautiful 18,327-acre wilderness area with quiet connected lakes and old-growth trees on the Wisconsin-Michigan border. ELPC attorneys, representing Friends of Sylvania, Sylvania Wilderness Cabins, and the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition won a major victory in federal district court to finally limit “grandfathered” polluting and noisy gas-powered motorboat use along the Sylvania Wilderness. This ELPC litigation victory is a key precedent for protecting our Wilderness Areas, National Forests, and National Lakeshores in the North Woods and Upper Great Lakes. We’re protecting the Sylvania Wilderness against invasive species and preserving wilderness tranquility for people to enjoy in this special place.
Stopping the SS Badger from Dumping Toxic Coal Ash in Lake Michigan. ELPC and our colleagues are working with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and others to stop the coal-burning SS Badger, a Lake-Michigan ferry boat, from dumping about 1 million pounds of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan each year. In 2013, the SS Badger’s owner agreed with the US EPA to reduce coal ash dumping in 2014 and completely stop by 2015. The SS Badger’s owner now claims to have installed digital combustion controls that lower fuel consumption, and, next summer, will store the coal ash on board. ELPC will work to ensure that the SS Badger stops dumping into the Great Lakes.
Protecting the Great Lakes from Aging Oil Pipelines. Every day, Enbridge’s decaying, 60-year-old “Line 5” pipeline carries over 20 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas fluid under the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. In 2010, another Enbridge pipeline spilled more than 875,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. That spill created an ecological disaster that is still being cleaned up today. ELPC is working with the Michigan Land Use Institute, Michigan Environmental Council, FLOW and other partners to require Enbridge to remove, replace or upgrade its pipeline to protect the vulnerable Straits of Mackinac. We are gaining support from policymakers to take needed protective action.
Leading the Midwest’s Clean Energy Transformation
Disruptive solar energy and battery technologies and sustained advances in energy efficiency are poised to transform the electricity sector like wireless and the internet transformed telecommunications. ELPC advocates new policies to drive energy markets and technological innovations that can change the world.
Growing Renewable Energy in the Heartland. Wind power development is driving manufacturing jobs, rural economic development and pollution reduction. Iowa leads the nation, generating 28% of its electricity from wind power. Chicago has 14 global and North American wind power corporate headquarters. Wind power equipment supply chain businesses create jobs across the Midwest. Solar technologies keep advancing and PV panels drop in price, while energy efficiency advances in appliances, lighting and buildings save us money and reduce pollution.
ELPC’s solutions-based advocacy accelerates clean energy through an “innovate and replicate” model in which new policies — including updating standards for more solar on the grid in Illinois and new solar approaches in Minnesota — can be replicated in more states to drive markets, reduce barriers, and advance clean energy across the Midwest.
Expanding Energy Efficiency Programs. LED lights save 90% more energy than incandescent bulbs. In Illinois, ELPC steered new programs to accelerate market penetration of LED lights and home weatherization to produce longer-term, deeper energy savings. In Iowa, ELPC persuaded a utility to increase discounted LED lights from 2% to more than 40% by 2018, thereby avoiding more than 45 million pounds of CO2 pollution. ELPC’s sustained advocacy to accelerate energy efficiency in the Midwest will save consumers money on their utility bills, reduce the need for polluting power plants, and lighten the load on the electricity grid thereby improving reliability. A key indicator of market change: American Electric Power told the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio that it expects electricity demand to decrease by 16% over the next ten years.
Solar is Poised for Breakthrough Success. ELPC’s advocacy leadership is advancing breakthrough policies and removing barriers to solar energy development. ELPC persuaded the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to adopt an innovative “value of solar tariff” to recognize the multiple economic and social benefits of solar. ELPC is working with Illinois policymakers to update standards that will make solar easier to finance and connect to the grid. ELPC attorneys won a nationally precedential case before the Iowa Supreme Court to remove utility-sponsored regulatory barriers against a conventional financing mechanism used to support solar installations on public buildings, homes and business.
ELPC attorneys and a diverse coalition of solar power and energy efficiency businesses, RENEW, AARP, low-income consumer groups, and municipalities are fighting back before the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin against three Wisconsin utilities seeking to raise fixed charges and impose costly regulatory barriers to advancing solar energy and energy efficiency innovations. We need to win before the Comission and in the court of public opinion.
ELPC designed Illinois’ new $30 million solar procurement program, and we are working to create more sustainable cities by developing old industrial brownfields into solar “brightfields” that generate clean energy, create jobs and spur economic revitalization. ELPC’s multidisciplinary team of energy experts works on multiple fronts to accelerate Midwest leadership to a cleaner energy future.
Advancing Midwest Leadership for Climate Change Solutions
The Midwest is the center of our nation’s carbon pollution problems and should be the fulcrum for clean energy and clean transportation solutions. ELPC is working to speed development of clean wind power and solar energy resources, implement policies to advance energy efficiency, and accelerate hybrids, electric vehicles and other modern clean car technologies combined with better planning. These climate change solutions are good for job creation, good for economic growth and good for our environment and public health.
Achieving the Full Potential of the Clean Power Plan. President Obama’s proposed Clean Power Plan advances climate solutions leadership. The U.S. EPA is finalizing strong federal carbon pollution reduction standards in 2015 that will use Midwest states’ implementation plans to clean up the Midwest’s electricity sector. Supportive policies, improved technologies and changes in business and public attitudes and actions are driving clean energy from early adopters to the mainstream, with more wind power development, more solar energy installations and more efficient LED lighting, appliances, HVAC, pumps and motors. Electricity demand is declining while the Midwest economy is rebounding, and renewables and natural gas are squeezing out old coal plants and reducing carbon pollution. ELPC’s framework strategy Repowering the Midwest is moving from policy vision to reality.
Accelerating the Next Generation of Sustainable Transportation
Advancing Midwest High-Speed Rail Development. ELPC’s sustained advocacy to advance the Chicago-hubbed Midwest high-speed rail network is achieving major progress with bipartisan political and business, labor and civic support. By late 2015, we expect 110 mph modern rail service on 75% – 80% of the Chicago–St. Louis corridor, and soon after on the Chicago-Detroit corridor. Modern passenger railcars manufactured in Rochelle, Illinois are on track by early 2016. Minnesota continues planning for high speed rail projects as well. Key federal transportation legislation is a priority for Congress in 2015, and ELPC is working closely with the pivotal Midwest delegation to expand funding for high-speed rail development that improves mobility, reduces pollution, creates jobs and spurs economic growth.
Reducing Harmful Diesel Pollution. ELPC and our community partners challenged increased diesel pollution from Norfolk Southern’s rail yard expansion in Chicago’s Englewood community. ELPC’s legal and policy advocacy combined with community organizing, public engagement and media attention brought Norfolk Southern to the negotiating table. The settlement will reduce particulate pollution from diesel rail equipment and trucks, add neighborhood green space, and bring new jobs and economic growth.
Promoting Electric Vehicles. ELPC business and policy specialists are working to expand electric vehicle market penetration by removing barriers and advancing supportive policies. ELPC is partnering with the City of Chicago and leading businesses to promote workplace charging policies and infrastructure. By developing the policies to create workplace and home charging opportunities, electric vehicles can be used by more people, expanding capacity for businesses to operate large-scale green fleets.