The biggest environmental headlines of 2015 poured out of Paris late in the year as the world monitored 13 days of U.N. climate change negotiations. We also had plenty to follow in Wisconsin.
One story that caught our attention was the risk associated with transporting crude oil. An energy delivery company called Enbridge wanted to boost the flow of an existing oil line from Superior to Illinois.
Environmentalists, including Carl Whiting, fought the expansion in Dane County. Whiting is a member of Madison 350 and the Wisconsin Safe Energy Alliance.
“You have to understand that Line 61 at its full flow rate will fill an Olympic-size swimming pool three times over and be working on a fourth in a single hour," Whiting saif. “I don’t even want to think about what would happen to any of these wetlands or tributaries, if there were to be a breach of this massive pipeline.”
Line 61 ultimately pushed forward to increased capacity.
In Milwaukee, citizens and city leaders raised concerns about rail lines carrying oil tankers, following accidents elsewhere.
Nearly a dozen loads roll through the heart of city every week.
Milwaukee Alderman Bob Bauman appeared taken aback at a Public Works Committee meeting, when battalion chief David Votsis said preparedness for a rail crisis in downtown Milwaukee includes possible evacuation.
“We would evacuate up to a half mile. So theoretically you could be evacuating the entire Third Ward and Fifth Ward,” Votsis said.
Rail company Canadian Pacific deemed the structure of one very visible bridge sound, but encased its steel columns in concrete.
On the heels of a long debate over a proposed iron mine in far northern Wisconsin, a new proposal alarmed some residents.
An Iowa-based farmer hopes to start the first hog CAFO, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, in Bayfield County. Critics fear the massive operation could pollute the watershed that makes its way into Lake Superior. Mary Dougherty has led the opposition.
"I cannot find one peer-reviewed article, one scholarly article that says, 'Hey, CAFOs are really good for water,” Dougherty said.
Supporters of the operation, including third generation Bayfield County farmer Clay Burditt, insist critics are standing in the way of progress.
“It’s modern agriculture and the fact that we’ve progressed to a point where we can do more production with less effort,” Burditt said.
The DNR has set into motion, an environmental impact study of the proposed hog CAFO.
Crowds flooded into three public hearings in summer as the DNR considered Waukesha’s application to tap into Lake Michigan water.
The community’s deep aquifer supply is dwindling and compounds concerns about cancer-causing radium.
The local utility claims Lake Michigan is the only sustainable solution and that Waukesha will clean and return the water.
“Having no impacts to the Great Lakes, (GO TO) actually there being environmental benefits associated with it, the decision is clear,” said Dan Duchniak with the Waukesha Water Utility.
Critics insist Waukesha has plenty of water and, other options. Laurie Longtine is a member of the Waukesha County Environmental Action League.
“That should have been the first step they looked at – treating the radium in the water,” Longtine said.
In the end, the DNR blessed Waukesha’s plan. Now it is up to the other Great Lakes states will decide.
The DNR faced criticism on multiple fronts in 2015.
Governor Walker says streamlining is essential to creating a business-friendly agency, while 45 former staffers publicly expressed concern that the DNR is failing to protect Wisconsin’s environment.
They cited deep cuts to its science team. Will Wawrzyn worked as a DNR fish biologist for nearly 40 years.
“They (DNR scientists) never really offered an opinion. What they were doing was using the best available modeling of where our climate is headed, and I think that got the ire of some people in the administration or elsewhere,” Wawrzyn said.
People talked the Clean Power Plan up and down throughout 2015. It’s the EPA’s strategy for slashing emissions from existing coal-burning power plants by 2030.
Wisconsin joined more than two dozen other states in fighting the plan, with some regulators insisting it comes at too high a price.
Ellen Nowak chairs Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission.
"From $3 billion to $13 billion cost. That was generation only. Those costs don’t take into consideration in any other transmission upgrades, the costs of any coal plants that need to be shut down, but you still have to pay for, as a rate payer," Nowak says.
The debate butts heads with the freshly signed U.N. climate agreement. Nearly 200 countries are pledging to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the coming year, we’ll follow these on-going issues and new ones that arise.