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Carl Pope

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Field Notes Archive

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Carl Pope's Field Notes

Tales of Two Cities
3, 2004

Back from my book tour, after talking to people across the country, I'm still digesting what I found. Two cities in the Midwest provided good examples of the problems that local communities are facing and how they're trying to make things better.

Milwaukee tried to do it right -- the city built a huge tunnel to store its combined sewage and storm water during times of heavy rain. But it's not working. The papers there are dominated by stories about recent modestly heavy rains and the enormous raw sewage spills that resulted. The Bush administration may think the solution is simply to make what it likes to call "blended" spills (like a fine Scotch) legal, but that's not what anyone I talked to in Milwaukee wants.

One of the problems is that, as the suburbs grow, more land is paved over and there's less soil to absorb the rainfall. So, more storm water ends up in the tunnel along with sewage. Why this should surprise the Bush administration is mystifying -- any corporation understands that its plant and facilities need continual modernization and upgrading.

Apparently, the hostility of the hard-right and the Bush administration to all forms of community endeavor extends to the idea of continuously investing in such basic infrastructure as clean water and sewers. It was refreshing, then, to meet with Jeffrey Crawford, the General Counsel of the Potawatomi Tribe, which thrilled the entire state a few years ago when it decided to end the threat that the proposed Crandon Mine posed to water quality here by actually buying out the mining company. Our common concern again was water quality, this time in the form of the Bush administration's refusal to clean up mercury emissions.

The tribes are very concerned that, after long struggles in courts and in legislatures to win back their right to do subsistence fishing, they are regaining their treaty rights at the moment when, thanks to mercury pollution, their victory is hollow -- because they can't eat the fish they catch. We left the meeting with a mutual commitment to explore ways to harness the legal status that the tribes enjoy to give us a new handle on the mercury problem -- a problem that the power companies were supposed fix but which the Bush administration is trying to give them a pass on.

A New Beginning in Columbus?

Sewers were also a big story in Columbus, OH, a city where people told me that Karl Rove spends so much time that they have learned to recognize him on the street. The Sierra Club once sued the city to try to force it to invest adequately in fixing the combined sewage/storm water problems that often ended up flooding people's basements. That lawsuit soured our relationship with Mayor Coleman, but he and his staff are interested in trying to build a new relationship now that consent decrees have been entered into. It was clear during lunch with the mayor that, however dead serious environmental policy making might be in Washington, here in Columbus it's very much alive.

Mayor Coleman is trying to deal with the legacy of previous city administrations that didn't care, and he's committed himself to put a major $400 million bond act on the ballot, most of it dedicated to environmental enhancements -- including sewer improvements. And he's also deeply committed to mobilizing the city's voters and to finding ways to turn them out -- which is also going to be one of our major goals this November. So we found lots to agree about (and the Mayor bought lunch).

My next stop was Ohio State -- a beautiful spring day and a small but intense audience. To maintain balance, one of the faculty was invited to counter my message on the Bush administration's environmental recklessness. But the students didn't seem to me to be buying it -- they mainly wanted to know what they could do to change things.