By: Charlie Luthin,Wisconsin Wetlands Association
Following extensive negotiations between We Energies (formerly Wisconsin Gas Co.), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), two environmental organizations (Wisconsin Wetlands Association [WWA] and Waukesha County Environmental Action League [WEAL]), an organization of affected property owners (Neighbors Standing United [NSU]), as well as individual affected area citizens, agreement has been reached that allows the controversial 35-mile “lateral” gas pipeline to proceed. The negotiations resulted from the threat of a contested case hearing requested by WEAL, NSU and affected citizens challenging the permit request by the company.
The strict permit conditions established by the DNR for the lateral pipeline have set a new precedent for environmental protection that can be applied to all future pipeline projects in the state. The lateral pipeline is being constructed to connect the recentlycompleted 140-mile Guardian pipeline between Joliet, Illinois and Ixonia, Wisconsin with customers in the Milwaukee area.
The results of the agreement include: a significantly modified pipeline route that will impact considerably fewer wetlands and waterbodies; stringent permit conditions that control run-off and erosion from uplands into wetlands, rivers and streams; and a plan for the gas company to restore wetlands that have been impacted during pipeline construction. Whereas the original pipeline route would have impacted 152.8 acres of wetlands, encompassing 11.3 miles of wetland crossings (almost 1/3 of the route), the route will now impact an estimated 82.8 wetland acres, representing a reduction in wetland impacts by 46%. Furthermore, the most ecologically sensitive wetlands have been avoided altogether.
Special construction conditions are spelled out in the permit, issued by the DNR dated January 17, 2003, that will minimize impacts to wetlands and rivers that will be crossed by the pipeline. The permit also obligates the company to establish a large performance bond or comparable financial assurance to protect against construction problems and environmental damage, ensuring that the project is completed according to the permit. The company must hire and pay for a DNR-approved private third-party monitor that will oversee construction and report potential permit violations to the DNR. We Energies has also offered to undertake scientific research on the impacts to and restoration of wetland habitats impacted by construction. The hearing, originally scheduled for January 6 in Waukesha, was deemed unnecessary in light of the agreement reached. Nonetheless, citizens impacted by the pipeline had an opportunity to share their concerns with the administrative law judge on January 15th. A number of the citizens and conservationists, outraged by the innumerable environmental and private land violations they observed during construction of the Guardian pipeline, and concerned that the lateral pipeline was poorly planned and unjustified, requested the hearing months ago when the gas company filed for its DNR permit. The citizens may still have a chance to challenge the lateral pipeline in its entirety during a forthcoming Public Service Commission hearing on the routing and costs associated with the project.
Dennis Grzezinski, the Milwaukee based attorney representing the environmental groups and affected landowners on the project, stated to the judge in his closing remarks,“No one should interpret this agreement as indicating that any of my clients endorse this pipeline project, or agree that it is needed, or believe that it is in the public interest of the citizens of this state… My clients are agreeing with issuance of this negotiated permit because it is the best they can do—it is the lesser of two evils—which they needed to choose because of a broken regulatory system in this state.” Grzezinski further remarked,“If there had been a Public Intervenor when this pipeline was first proposed, I am certain we would not be here today.” Alice Thompson, a local wetland consultant and chair of Wisconsin Wetlands Association said, “Having observed the damage inflicted on numerous wetlands during construction of the Guardian pipeline under a very weak DNR permit, I hope that wetland impacts will be significantly reduced on the lateral [pipeline construction] under these newly established conditions.”
Although strong environmental protection measures have been gained through this negotiation process, many area residents are disheartened. Some have argued that the lateral pipeline is entirely unnecessary, excessively expensive, and disruptive of private lands and landowners along the route. They claim that there is adequate room in the existing ANR pipeline to carry the gas from the Guardian line to the Greater Milwaukee area without the need for the lateral pipeline. The gas company has argued that the lateral pipeline would provide competition with other pipelines, thereby reducing costs for the consumer.
There is a forthcoming contested case hearing on the main (Guardian) pipeline sometime this spring. Citizens will complain that the construction of the pipeline caused irreparable damage to their farms and wetlands, and that the DNR should retroactively impose the same conditions as it has now included for the lateral pipeline. The environmental community will argue that the company should be forced to pay a performance bond, and restore impaired wetlands disturbed during construction.