Big agri-business rolls over the people of Arena and gives us a glimpse of our state's future.
The Arena phenomenon
Imagine Wisconsin in 50 to 75 years with twice as many people, as Chicago folks decide to work from home and home is north.
What will happen to our rural areas, our green space, our ground and surface water, our ... you get the picture.
Are we planning for the future or giving that responsibility to developers and huge agribusiness companies? Permit me to provide a few reasons why I am alarmed.
Many of us only know about Arena because we pass through this small town in Iowa County on the way to American Players Theatre, our cultural gem in Spring Green. But Arena provides a textbook example of why our state is in trouble.
While I'm no fan of ethanol, this is not an anti-ethanol column. But questions about where plants should be built and the environmental impact on our communities must be asked by elected officials and answered by those who would build the plants. We need input by impartial experts not just the investors.
(I represented a citizen group formed to raise questions about the plant in Arena. They are convinced the proposed plant will alter the character of their small community and create health and safety issues.)
Politicians of both parties are wild about ethanol. Democrats running for president who will face Iowa voters in a couple of years can't say enough good things about ethanol. Ethanol is the panacea for all our problems. It will free our nation from oil dependency while providing an economic boon to farmers. No need to force Detroit to build hybrid cars.
Those who would convert every ear of corn in Iowa and Wisconsin to ethanol assure our local communities that ethanol plants will never explode or have fires; the emissions will smell like a bakery at dawn; kids won't get asthma from breathing the emissions; and the plant will produce high-paying-family-supporting jobs. Nothing guaranteed, of course. They say, "Trust us."
One of the promoters of ethanol exclaimed at the Iowa County Planning Commission meeting, "Building an ethanol plant in Arena is our patriotic duty. It will bring our troops home from Iraq, grow our agricultural economy and provide good jobs." I'm not kidding. I was there.
So what's the problem?
Investors quietly selected Arena as a future site for an ethanol plant that will produce between 40 million and 100 million gallons of ethanol per year. They didn't ask the residents if they liked the idea. Instead they kept it a secret except for local officials needed to rezone and to grant a conditional use permit.
The investors hired one of Wisconsin's largest law firms and its largest lobbying firm to help keep the public out of the way and to convince town and county officials that no research is needed. The Farm Bureau, a regular cheerleader for big business, was there in support as was the railroad that would ship the fuel. Approval was a slam-dunk at the town meeting and at the county planning commission.
Citizens in opposition showed up at the town meeting, but the town chair treated them as if they were in the way while he rolled out the welcome mat for the applicant.
Here is the problem. When the applicant was asked to pay for an independent study on the impact that pumping hundreds of millions of gallons of water might have on the Arena town well, wells within a few miles of the plant, on the aquifer, on ground and surface water, not to mention the Wisconsin River just two miles away, the answer was alarming. "No. Why should we?"
Not one question of the applicant about environmental impacts before giving unanimous approval. Not one question.
"Why should we?" states the problem for our future. The Wisconsin State Journal told an important story last Sunday on the problems we face as unplanned growth, dictated by developers, results in a reduced aquifer.
Could we run out of water here as they have in New Berlin in Waukesha County? Will ethanol plants, pumping millions of gallons of water, deplete this precious resource?
One thing is certain. Small local government is getting rolled by the big boys. "Give us your air, your ground water, your wells and your roads and we might create some jobs if you ask no questions." Such a deal!
Fighting Bob Fest was begun five years ago by those who stopped Perrier from stealing our spring water. Now with the ethanol craze in full gallop, it is time for tough questions and serious impact studies before granting permits.
We need new strategies if we are going to protect our water, our air and our grandchildren. Will the people decide our future or will we sit by and watch as developers divide our land and shape the future?
See you at Fighting Bob Fest next week.
(A version of this article originally appeared on the opinion page of the Capital Times.)
August 31, 2006
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Ed Garvey is editor and publisher of FightingBob.com.