Choo-Choo-Choosing a New Home for Ann Arbor’s Amtrak Station

Friday, September 12, 2014

When the Haute-Picardie was built between Paris and Lille in France, no one could complain that it didn’t have plentiful enough parking. In the middle of a beetroot field, 40 kilometers from the community it was meant to serve, it was nothing if not accommodating to cars, and planners hoped economic activity would naturally sprout up around the station. It did not. It instead became a reason rail stations with poor linkages to public transit and economic activity are called “beet stations.” Not exactly an honor.

Access to parking is, of course, one of the many issues Ann Arbor’s current Amtrak station presents. Anyone who has lugged a suitcase from the current longterm parking area across the Broadway St. bridge to the station would likely agree. Linking to public transit from the tight constraints of Depot St. is no easy task either. But of the three locations now under review to become the site of a new Amtrak station, the original is still closest to the economic activity of downtown – and that’s no small consideration. According to Deputy Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, Kevin Brubaker, it’s probably the most important factor in determining where to locate a train station – and far more important than parking.

Read More

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Riding Amtrak to Chicago (But Banned to Madison)…

Thursday, September 11, 2014

By James Rowen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s The Political Environment

I sat in The Hiawatha’s “Quiet Car” earlier this week riding the rails to Chicago, plugged my phone into a wall socket and thought what a mistake Wrong-Way Walker made killing Amtrak expansion to Madison.

He did more than eliminate a  federally-funded, job-creating new line to Madison.

He also killed a comfortable, low-cost/no-TSA hassle-free Midwestern regional alternative to unpleasant plane or car travel, too.

On the Milwaukee-Chicago route, there are no tolls to pay, no road traffic congestion, no big parking fees when you get there.

Mr. Rowen’s blog is part of our Purple Wisconsin project. Rowen is a political writer and environmental consultant who has had careers in  journalism and public service.

Read More

Des Moines Register: Iowa water assessment criticized

Monday, September 8, 2014

A new report says Iowa and other Midwestern states need to better monitor and assess efforts to reduce nutrient pollution that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.

Twelve states have been charged with reducing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf — an area roughly the size of Connecticut that cannot support aquatic life during parts of the summer.

The inspector general for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said few states involved in the national effort have committed to specific reduction targets or timelines for cleaning up waterways that feed the Mississippi River basin.

“Reducing the size of the hypoxic zone poses a significant challenge,” the report said. While the “states are in the process of developing and implementing nutrient reduction strategies, there is no requirement for states to ensure that they will fully implement them and that the practices implemented will achieve the intended watershed-level environmental goal.”

Keep Reading

Chicago Sun-Times: From ashes to no ashes, SS Badger to keep sailing

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A long-running Lake Michigan controversy looks like it’s about to sail into the sunset. For years, environmentalists have complained that the SS Badger dumps 509 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan every year as it hauls cars and passengers between Manitowoc, Wis., and Luddington, Mich.

The ash contains mercury, although the Badger owners say it only amounts to a quarter of an ounce over a season. But the dumping is about to end. In 2013, the Badger’s owners signed a consent agreement with the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency saying they would “implement a sophisticated ash retention system” after the 2014 season that will keep the ash on board and out of the lake.

Concerns were raised, because the Badger had missed deadlines before. But now, as the end of the current sailing system on Oct. 26 nears, they say they’ll make that deadline.

Keep Reading

ELPC’s Aug. 29 Badger Update: Let’s Make Sure the S.S. Badger Stops Dumping Coal Ash into Lake Michigan

Summer is coming to an end, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center is making sure that the SS Badger car ferry’s coal ash dumping into Lake Michigan is finally coming to an end, too.

ELPC and our colleagues worked with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and others to force the SS Badger car ferry to clean up its operations and stop dumping up to 1 million pounds of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan each year.  ELPC is now watchdogging to make sure that the SS Badger car ferry complies with the federal consent decree deadline to stop dumping coal ash into the Lake by 2015.

Last fall, owners of the coal-burning SS Badger and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice filed a consent decree in federal court under which the SS Badger would reduce its coal ash dumping in 2014 and completely stop dumping coal ash in Lake Michigan by 2015. Here’s a quick update on what’s happening.

1. Last winter, SS Badger operators installed new digital combustion controls that enable the ship to operate more efficiently, burning less coal on its trips from Manitowoc, WI, to Ludington, MI. This upgrade is intended to reduce fuel consumption by 15% this summer. That’s a step in the right direction that should have been done years ago.

2. By next summer, SS Badger operators plan to install a retention system that will store the coal ash on board the ship before disposing it in an appropriate on-land site. This should result in no more toxic coal ash being dumped into Lake Michigan, as the consent decree requires.

ELPC’s watchdogging will not end until the SS Badger’s coal ash dumping into Lake Michigan stops. The SS Badger’s owners talked about cleaning up for years prior to the consent decree, but then they stalled and delayed. The consent decree should add certainty, and ELPC will monitor to ensure it is implemented and enforced fully.

Working together, we’re on the verge of finally stopping the SS Badger’s dumping toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan. For more information on actions to protect our Great Lakes, please see www.protectourlakes.org.

Crain’s Chicago Business: War breaks out again over Illiana Expressway

Friday, August 29, 2014

Hostilities have resumed in the political war over the proposed Illiana Expressway, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and environmental groups trying to block a legal maneuver that would make it easier to build the controversial road.

The focus of the renewed battle is the board of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, an obscure but powerful group that acts as the gatekeeper for many federal funding programs in the Chicago area and whose blessing is needed to proceed with any mayor transportation project.

CMAP’s staff and board last year strongly objected to including the Illiana, a tollroad that would run from I-55 in Illinois to I-65 in Indiana, in its Go to 2040 priority list of approved projects. But after intense lobbing from aides to Gov. Pat Quinn, CMAP’s policy committee backed the proposal in October.

That decision promptly was challenged in by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, who contends that, legally, CMAP’s board and not its policy committee has the binding say. But pending before the CMAP board now — and scheduled to come up at its October meeting — is a periodic update of the Go to 2040 plan that now includes the Illiana.

ELPC’s Howard Learner considers that a back door effort to block his law suit and make the policy committee superior to the board. Ms. Preckwinkle doesn’t think much of the tactic either.

Keep Reading

Chicago Tribune: Fracking in Illinois: The rules, and why they matter

Friday, August 29, 2014

Environmentalists, oil and gas developers and anti-fracking groups are anxiously awaiting Friday’s unveiling of regulations for fracking operations in Illinois.

Once approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, possibly as early as September, high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations can apply to drill in the state.

The latest rules are expected to address about 30,000 comments made on the first draft, which was submitted nearly a year ago. Some people sought to ban fracking — it involves injecting fluids and chemicals at high volumes to crack open shale rock and unleash oil and natural gas — and others pointed out loopholes in the proposed regulations.

Environmentalists and oil drillers will be looking to see if the final draft has addressed their concerns.

Keep Reading

Illinois Tech and Design Leaders Send Letter on Climate Change

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

For Immediate Release

August 27, 2014

Illinois Tech and Design Leaders Call for Climate Action, Opening of Energy Data

CHICAGO – More than 30 leading members of Illinois’ bustling technology and design community have signed a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy applauding efforts to curb carbon pollution and asking that open data be a key part of our nation’s effort to fight climate change. The letter was cc’ed to the White House and Illinois Governor Quinn, and was sent to the full Illinois Congressional Delegation.

The letter voices support for the first proposed limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which were announced in June.

“We support the proposed regulations because we are deeply concerned and mindful about the present and future impacts of climate change on our state, our economy, our public health and our communities. Additionally, we want policy makers to know that U.S. EPA’s carbon pollution regulations also offer the Illinois business community opportunities for potential economic gains,” the letter says.

The letter goes on to say that by opening energy data, the state’s technology community can become a key partner in the fight against climate change:

“Working together to integrate technology and design will insure we have cleaner, more reliable electricity. We’ll slash our greenhouse pollution, and we’ll grow the economy. We’ve changed the way people get the news, book travel, buy goods, make dinner reservations and find parking. Let’s change the way people use energy.”

Jason Kunesh, a co-founder of Public Good Software and veteran of Orbitz and of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, said the tech community is positioned to help people truly engage with efforts to fight climate change. “There is a growing segment of the technology and design community that is deeply concerned about the impacts of climate change we are already seeing. We want to be part of the solution.”

Derek Eder, a co-founder of Open City Apps and co-host of Chicago’s weekly Open Gov Hack Night, said that opening up energy use data and making real time data available to users will allow for the development of game changing products in the energy space. “We’ve seen the apps and tools made possible by the opening of government data. It has allowed people to better understand everything from snow plows to closing schools to registered lobbyists. If we had detailed data on carbon pollution, we could make powerful apps to fight climate change, too.”

For many of the signers, who signed as individuals, not on behalf of their employers, the desire to become part of the fight against climate is personal. Billy Carlson, Director of UX at Threadless, said that as a father with young children he is concerned about the world those children will inherit. “The impacts of climate change are here and it is up to us to do something. I am not a climate scientist, I am not a politician. If can use my talents to make tools that help people cut their carbon pollution, then sign me up.”

Other prominent signers of the letter include John Tolva, former Chief Technology Officer with the City of Chicago; Adrian Holovaty, co-creator of Django and EveryBlock, and founder of Soundslice; Dan Ratner, a co-founder of Sittercity; Mana Ionescu, president and founder of Lightspan Digital; Mike McGee, Co-Founder of Starter League; Matt Gee, co-founder of Effortless Energy; Atkins Meyer, director of engineering at Threadless; Paul Baker and Elnaz Moshfeghian of Webitects; and Ty Benefiel the creator of Meter Genius.

For a copy of the letter contact David Jakubiak.

Howard Learner’s New Comment in Environmental Law Reporter: “Emerging Clarity in Climate Change Law: EPA Empowered and State Common Law Remedies Enabled”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Please see ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner’s new Comment in the Environmental Law Reporter (September 2014):  “Emerging Clarity in Climate Change Law:  EPA Empowered and State Common Law Remedies Enabled” (pdf).  This legal analysis addresses: (1) How the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions in EPA v. EME Homer City and UARG v. EPA fill out the climate change law framework of Mass. v. EPA and AEP v. Connecticut; and (2) The recent Third Circuit decision and the Iowa Supreme Court decision that allow state common law actions to address carbon and other air pollutants.  Here’s a brief summary of Howard’s Comment on this timely and important set of issues:

The emerging law of climate change is becoming clearer. The U.S. Supreme Court’s series of climate change and other Clean Air Act decisions authorize the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency to advance its standards-setting process, and provide general deference to EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act and other statutory programs. The Court is sending a clear message to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which reviews most of EPA’s final standards, and to other courts, to restrain judicial activism.  Likewise, federal and state courts are opening the door for plaintiffs to assert state common law tort remedies.

The Court’s majority has made clear its solid support for the landmark Massachusetts v. EPA decision authorizing EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. The partisan political attacks and the novel theories of the cottage industry of appellate attorneys representing certain polluting industries have not deterred the Court. The Court’s recent decisions in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation and Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, which strongly, although not entirely, uphold EPA’s CAA implementation discretion, should reduce confusion and bring much-needed increased certainty for both state policymakers and energy industry executives to move forward in making business decisions.  At the same time, both federal and state courts are beginning to fill in the blanks left by the Court in its American Electric Power v. Connecticut decision, which held that the Clean Air Act displaces federal common law injunction actions brought by states and other plaintiffs seeking to limit carbon dioxide pollution from coal plants, by preserving citizens’ traditional rights under state common law.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Electric rates could rise 5% in January for We Energies customers

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Electric rates for homeowners and other residential customers of We Energies could go up nearly 5% in January, depending on how state regulators decide the utility’s 2015-’16 rate case this fall.

While the overall rate increase is proposed to be just under 2% — staying below the projected inflation rate — residential customers would see rate increases exceeding the projected inflation rate next year.

We Energies customers pay the second-highest electric rates in the state, according to the state Public Service Commission. Since 2005, We Energies’ residential bills have increased 51%, while inflation is up 22%.

The Milwaukee power company’s rate request comes as its parent company, Wisconsin Energy Corp., is seeking approval for a $9.1 billion acquisition of Chicago-based natural gas and electric utility Integrys Energy Group.

In Illinois, Integrys and Wisconsin Energy have promised to keep rates unchanged for two years — provided the Illinois Commerce Commission allows rates to increase in early 2015, before the acquisition closes.

But an Illinois customer group wants natural gas charges in the Chicago area frozen at current levels rather than after another increase takes effect. In Wisconsin, customer groups haven’t made a formal request for concessions related to the acquisition, but have said regulators should ensure customers benefit from the deal.

In a bill message appearing in the mailboxes of 1.1 million customers across the state, We Energies explains its rationale for the rate increase and the changes it’s proposing in how customers are charged.

Keep Reading

Midwest Energy News: Advocates say Wisconsin solar fight could spill into other states

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A closely watched battle over utility policy in Wisconsin could determine the fate of solar development throughout the region, advocates say.

The dispute is over three major rate cases recently filed by We Energies,Madison Gas & Electric andWisconsin Public Service Corporation. The three utilities cover much of the eastern half of the state as well as its largest cities.

If the state Public Service Commission (PSC) approves the cases, solar experts say there will be a massive chill over solar development in these utilities’ service territories. And they expect other utilities in Wisconsin and beyond will file similar requests.

All three cases would significantly restructure the way residential and business customers are charged for electricity, so that all customers pay a higher fixed amount each month while the variable charges based on electricity use are reduced.

This creates an inherent disincentive to reduce energy use – whether through installing solar panels or increasing energy efficiency. RENEW Wisconsin program and policy director Michael Vickerman described it as a “reverse Robin Hood” move that shifts the burden of paying for electricity from large energy consumers to small consumers.

Keep Reading