Wisc. Dept. of Ag., Trade and Consumer Protection
Private Wells with Alachor ESA Detections, as of July, 2006.
Dane County residents have special reason to mind a state legislative committee's decision to spike a proposed regulatory standard for alachlor ESA, an herbicide byproduct that may be harmful to human health. A huge number of private wells from which county residents get their drinking water are contaminated with it.
"Clearly, there's more showing up in Dane County than other places," says Mike Lemcke, head of groundwater for the state Department of Natural Resources. And while most wells test below the DNR's proposed standard, he adds, "to me, the question is, do you want any of this stuff in your water? I'd say no, I don't want any of it in my water."
Alachlor ESA, known to cause blood problems such as anemia in rats, is a byproduct of alachlor, an herbicide commonly sold under the brand name Lasso and used on row crops like soybeans and corn. The state can regulate alachlor, a known carcinogen, but has no authority over alachlor ESA, meaning it cannot insist on steps to reduce high levels.
"It's a loophole for that pesticide," says Bruce Baker, deputy administrator for the DNR's Water Division. He thinks alachlor ESA is prevalent in Dane County because there are "a lot of private wells and a lot of row crops."
Bruce Rheineck, a hydrologist with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, says alachlor ESA is in an estimated 28% of the state's private wells, based on random tests. For a six-county region that includes Dane, the detection frequency is 52%. And two of the dozen wells found with levels in excess of the proposed standard (20 parts per billion) were in Dane ' near Waunakee and Sun Prairie.
Since the early 1990s, the DNR and other agencies have worked toward setting a standard for alachlor ESA, using the same process as for 130 other groundwater contaminants. Last week, the Legislature's Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules rejected the proposed standard, which Monsanto, the maker of Lasso, had opposed.
This rejection, the first ever for a groundwater contaminant, followed a standoff between the committee and the Natural Resources Board. The committee wanted the DNR to wait for a peer review study funded by Monsanto, per the company's request; the board balked, saying it would do a review but first wanted to get a standard in place.
Baker sees "no reason or rationale" for an intervening study, which would mean "years of delay." He says the proposed standard is already based on Monsanto's own studies. But the state used a study result "that would prevent any health effects," while Monsanto "would like us to use a study that showed some health effects" it claims are not significant.
Why are legislators siding with Monsanto over the state's own agencies? Says Baker, "I think it's pretty clear that they've gotten a lot of pressure from Monsanto in trying to prevent a groundwater standard for alachlor ESA." He thinks Monsanto is worried about the precedent, because it's developing similar new pesticides.
Er, one more thing: If alachlor ESA is in wells all over Dane County, could it be in the wells Madison uses to provide drinking water to residents? Yep, it could be, for all anyone knows. "Alachlor ESA is not something that ever gets tested for when we submit our samples," says Madison Water Utility manager David Denig-Chakroff.
Blanchard passes on school complaints
It's been nearly a year since the Madison Metropolitan School District signed a contract to buy land for a new elementary school on the city's southeast side, a move so shrouded in secrecy that school board member Lawrie Kobza urged members of the public to file a complaint.
In early November 2005, Isthmus followed through, asking Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard to prosecute the district for violating the state's open meetings law. Jim Zellmer of School Information System filed a parallel complaint, alleging open records violations.
This week, 10 months after receiving these complaints, Blanchard, prompted by fresh inquiries from Zellmer and Isthmus,finally reviewed the file and reached a decision ' against taking action.
"Real estate transactions are typically done in stages, and they can be derailed at various stages," he concluded. "There is a reasonable argument in this case that the [stated] contingencies were genuine and that they could have affected negotiations...." He cited the lack of clarity caused by statutory language allowing closed meetings for "competing and bargaining reasons." (For Blanchard's e-mail, see Document Feed at TheDailyPage.com.)
Earlier, Blanchard blamed staffing shortages for his long delay in addressing the complaints, saying the Legislature had failed to plug the gap caused by mounting workloads and federal cuts. He is his office's sole decision-maker on open records and meetings complaints, which he admits are prioritized lower because citizens have other remedies.
Since taking office in 2001, Blanchard has reviewed a number of open records and meetings complaints, but prosecuted just two (not including the caucus scandal, which had public records aspects). In 2003, he got Madison Ald. Matt Sloan to pay a $132 fine for failing to publicly notice meetings of a committee pondering a smoking ban. In 2005, he busted four city of Monona alderpersons for taking up a resolution not on their agenda. (The alders fought the charges, blowing more than $9,000 of taxpayers' money in a failed bid to avoid $188 fines and forcing Blanchard to produce lengthy briefs on what dissident Monona Ald. Peter McKeever dubbed "a pretty blatant and obvious violation.")
Zellmer, for his part, is disappointed: "Decisions with long-term implications, like where to locate a school and how much to pay for land, should not be made behind closed doors. In the absence of open decision-making, the public inevitably becomes suspicious of the decisions that are made, and has little alternative but to vote out the incumbents."
Another conspiracy theory
Nelson Eisman, the indefatigable Green Party candidate for governor, wonders why the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce's upcoming annual dinner has two speakers ' Gov. Jim Doyle and challenger Mark Green ' but not him. He notes that several of its sponsors ' MGE, ATC and American Family ' also bankroll "We the People," the group staging two gubernatorial face-offs from which he is also excluded.
"Why are these energy companies supporting both of these candidates?" asks Eisman. "Perhaps it doesn't matter to them which becomes governor, because both will back their agenda for the further privatization of our utilities." He blames cuts in Public Service Commission staff for undercutting public protection and driving energy rates for state consumers from the lowest to the highest in the Midwest over the last eight years.
Chamber spokeswoman Freya Reeves says sponsors play no role in picking speakers and that her group is already pushing things by having two speakers, twice as many as usual, as part of an already full evening. She adds that local and state candidates for elected office, including Eisman, have been invited to attend.
Maybe he can rail against the utilities and two-party system to the business execs at his table.
John Anderson, a state legislative aide, has another bone to pick with Grassroots Campaigns, the pro-profit firm that raises cash for Democratic candidates using canvassers who may be making sub-minimum wage, in apparent violation of state law (Watchdog, 9/1/06). It pastes fliers offering jobs on "every friggin' light pole in my neighborhood," which "looks as trashy as any kind of tagging."
City Attorney Mike May says this likely runs afoul of city ordinances. But, apparently, it doesn't much matter. Madison zoning administrator Matt Tucker says the city will remove such signs ("We deal with it from a collection and throw-away standpoint"), but has never brought an enforcement action against a violator, so far as he knows. "It's not a real high priority for our staff."
Praise be to Borders
Let us take a moment to acknowledge Borders books, which, since an item in this space a few months back ("Open Up and Let Us In," 3/31/06), has installed automatic doors at both of its Madison stores, making it easier for people with disabilities to enter.
"The article you did made us realize what a high priority it is for our customers," says Michael Chaim, manager of Borders West. "We do try to listen to people."
Chaim admits the doors are expensive but says it's been worth it: "We've gotten a lot of good customer feedback." Hear that, other businesses?