By Andrew C. Hanson, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Inc.
Wisconsin’s Environmental Law Center With the help of GLAHNF and others, MEA was incorporated as a non-profit in the fall of 2000 in order to provide the legal component that was missing from the environmental movement in Wisconsin. MEA is the first and only environmental law center in Wisconsin. MEA’s mission is to provide high quality legal services that support a diverse, grassroots social movement; build local leadership; and implement innovative solutions to environmental problems. MEA provides legal and technical support to grassroots groups who are working for environmental justice across the Western Great Lakes region.
In addition to legal representation provided directly by MEA, we also operate as a clearinghouse to connect groups to attorneys who have joined MEA’s Advocacy Network and have agreed to provide pro bono or reduced-fee representation. There are twenty attorneys in our Advocacy Network. These attorneys have helped 134 individuals or communities on environmental issues due to referrals by MEA.
GLAHNF Support In addition to the one described below, MEA has received three grants from GLAHNF that have assisted with both direct program activities and building the organization. (1) With an organizational development grant from GLAHNF, MEA held a board development retreat and sent a lawyer to an intensive litigation and advocacy training; (2) With a supplemental grant from GLAHNF, MEA published a report on the Wisconsin DNR’s lack of enforcement of the Clean Water Act during the 1990s; and (3) With a grant to work on livestock factory issues, MEA represented grassroots groups that were fighting for more stringent protections for their watersheds, and produced an activist guide to assist citizens.
MEA petitioned the EPA about the deficiencies in the DNR’s permitting of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As a result of this petition, the DNR significantly strengthened its permit system for CAFOs. MEA is continuing this work by helping communities protect their watersheds by bringing enforcement actions when permits are violated.
Currently, with assistance of a GLAHNF grant, MEA is working with a small rural community to prevent the siting of (1) a beef slaughterhouse that will process 1,000 head a day, (2) an ethanol plant, (3) 45 acres of waste treatment pits, and (4) up to 25,000 cattle in new livestock factory feedlots (with the potential for more feedlots) in their community. MEA’s work on this issue began in the summer of 2001 when we first learned of these plans. The area immediately affected is the City of Adams in Adams County. However, all of Central Wisconsin may be affected if additional beef livestock factory feedlots are introduced to the area.
The proposed site for the slaughterhouse has a high water table, and is home to a stream that provides habitat for nesting ducks and many species of fish. Central Wisconsin is known for its sandy soils, high water table, and resultant groundwater pollution from agricultural activities. The addition of more livestock factories, with their attendant manure pits, will likely mean more pollution and habitat destruction for Central Wisconsin waters. The residents of Adams County, the people who would be most directly affected by the project, were unaware that their public officials, the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had been working in various ways with the livestock company, Quality Beef, to plan the project for more than two years.
Empowering Leaders MEA used Wisconsin’s Open Records Law to obtain detailed information about the project. We have been using this information to help educate the residents of the entire county about the potential environmental problems with this project so they can stop the project before it gets approved by the governmental agencies from which permits will be required. We used that information to compile a short fact sheet describing the slaughterhouse and its potential impacts on the quality of life of the residents of Adams County. MEA released this fact sheet to the press and received coverage in Wisconsin’s main newspaper. Residents saw the press coverage and called us for more information. Through these initial contacts, we helped organize two grassroots groups, Adams County Tourism, Inc. (ACT) and Concerned Citizens of Adams County, to distribute copies of the fact sheet and to begin efforts to hold public officials accountable for hiding the slaughterhouse from the community.
We helped the two groups hold a public meeting, with more than 200 people in attendance, to strategize about how to stop the slaughterhouse. The groups have waged an effective media campaign by: (1) placing more than 1,000 “No Slaughterhouse” yard signs all over Adams County; (2) consistently writing letters to the editor in the local newspaper opposing the slaughterhouse; and (3) raising funds to purchase advertising space in the local newspaper to oppose the slaughterhouse. In addition, MEA has litigated on behalf of Concerned Citizens of Adams County in two successful lawsuits to obtain detailed information about the slaughterhouse from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce and an Adams County economic development agency that had been working to bring the Quality Beef slaughterhouse into the county. Finally, MEA has successfully represented Concerned Citizens of Adams County in their efforts to convince a reluctant Adams City Council to hold a public hearing on the slaughterhouse.
What do you consider the key to your success?
MEA measures success by how it changes the balance of power in communities. The key to MEA’s success in this campaign is empowering the residents of Adams with the knowledge and information they need to protect their environment and their quality of life. We were able to accomplish this by using the media to initially break the silence about this project. Then we focused on providing timely and accurate information to the local residents so they could speak for themselves.
How would you outline the steps you took to organize your project in order to advise another group working on a similar project?
I. Gain access to information a. Attend public meetings. b. Use the state’s open records laws to access information from state and local officials. c. Hold public meetings and invite public officials to attend.
II. Use information to wage an effective media campaign a. Raise funds to purchase advertising space in local newspapers. b. Consistently write letters to the editor raising questions about the project. c. Distribute yard signs to build grassroots opposition to the project. d. Develop relationships with the press so they cover the story.
III. Develop a strategy to build opposition to the project among elected officials. a. Attend and speak at city council meetings. b. Meet with elected officials to discuss their position on the issue. c. Participate in local elections.
IV. Use the law and litigation as a last resort to protect your environment and quality of life a. When denied access to public records, immediately bring legal action to defend the public’s rights and obtain information for the public. b. If permits or decisions are made by the government that are not supported by the law and facts, bring a legal action to supplement the educating and organizing work of the grassroots group.
What have the effects of this effort been on your organization’s work?
By empowering ACT and Concerned Citizens of Adams County with the information needed for them to get organized, MEA has been able to minimize its time and costs in battling the slaughterhouse proposal. Instead, our work has empowered local leadership at the grassroots level and allowed MEA to direct its resources to other grassroots organizing and legal efforts in Wisconsin. Our approach to building local leaders has multiplied MEA’s effect across the state.
How has the project affected your community?
Because MEA exposed the slaughterhouse proposal, it has helped create a community of citizens that are trying to get actively involved in local decisions that affect their environment and quality of life. This level of citizen involvement has only produced positive results: the community is engaged in a collective dialogue about its health and its future.
What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?
At first, it was difficult to find leaders in the community who were willing to lead an effort to stop the slaughterhouse. This was in part because residents feared retaliation from public officials and proponents of the slaughterhouse for opposing the project – a project that has the apparent support of the state government, the Adams County government, and the Adams City Council. However, many of those opposed to the slaughterhouse found themselves in the majority once they all met and organized Concerned Citizens of Adams County and ACT.
How many people were involved?
(a) Initially: Two to four.
(b) Finally: Hundreds of Adams County residents are now involved. MEA has spent hundreds of hours researching the slaughterhouse’s potential impact on Adams County and Central Wisconsin. Concerned Citizens of Adams County has spent countless hours organizing the community by writing letters to the editors, attending city council meetings, distributing yard signs, developing informational materials, and other media work.
How was public involvement motivated and facilitated?
MEA distributed the copies of its fact sheet about the slaughterhouse to persons who had heard about the slaughterhouse after MEA had given the information to the media. With each inquiry from a concerned citizen, we encouraged them to hold a public meeting on the slaughterhouse to gather more information and develop a strategy. Within two months of MEA’s news release to the media, Concerned Citizens of Adams County and ACT had formed and held a public meeting, attended by more than 200 Adams County residents.
How was public education a component of your program?
MEA educated the public about the social and environmental impacts of slaughterhouses. For example, few people knew that the new jobs that Quality Beef and public officials were touting typically pay only $7.00/hr, and that slaughterhouse workers face the highest risk of workplace injury than any other job in the country. Moreover, slaughterhouse waste is high in nutrients and, when spread on land as a means of disposal, can contaminate drinking water supplies and destroy nearby aquatic habitat.
What was the primary means of communication?
The primary means of communication has been Concerned Citizens of Adams County and ACT. MEA has helped both groups serve as a source of information on the impacts of the slaughterhouse.
What resources were available/acquired/tapped into (total project cost, public vs. private financing, specific sources, etc.)?
Concerned Citizens of Adams County has received financial support from its members, despite the fact that many of its members are low-income. MEA also linked Concerned Citizens of Adams County with a private donor to help cover the costs of yard signs and newspaper advertising space.
What level and types of media exposure were you able to obtain and how did it affect/assist your efforts?
There have been at least eight newspaper articles and four radio news stories written about Concerned Citizens of Adams County’s opposition to the slaughterhouse. This media exposure has been instrumental to continuing to apply pressure on local officials to reject any plan by Quality Beef to locate the slaughterhouse near the City of Adams.
Other comments that you feel would be helpful to other grassroots organizations working on similar projects.
The power of grassroots groups lies in their ability to move quickly to stop destructive development before it is formally proposed to the community. The group can use that time to let public officials know that they should oppose environmentally destructive economic development. The group can also wage an effective media campaign to convince investors to back out of the project. This prevents costly litigation later that can have a negative effect on the relationships within the community.