Hey, Sierra Club, why don’t you sue the MMSD?

The legal brain trust of the Sierra Club must have certain blinders. How else do you figure an outfit that sues We Energies over a bluff accident that dumped coal ash into Lake Michigan but ignores the largest polluter in the state of Wisconsin – the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

The Sierra Club has never been shy about flexing its legal muscle, as it did when it filed a suit over the Charter Street power plant in Madison, alleging that the coal-fired plant, which is being converted to natural gas, violated the Clean Air Act with its emissions (see this week’s online feature). So why would the conservation group ignore the MMSD, an outfit that is responsible for discharging untreated wastewater into Lake Michigan?

You heard that right. Thanks to a large area of Milwaukee that still is served by combined sanitary (how’s that for an oxymoron?) and storm sewers, the system gets overtaxed during heavy rains. Prompted by a lawsuit filed by the state of Illinois, a new system of deep tunnels was built in the late 1980s to capture untreated waste until it can be treated and released into the lake. The not-quite-deep-enough tunnel system has substantially reduced the number of “overflow” episodes, but it has not eliminated them. As a result, hundreds of thousands of gallons of the untreated gunk still can find their way into Lake Michigan following a single overflow.

Sometimes, the untreated wastewater is bypassed into the basements of Milwaukee-area homeowners, most recently in the suburb of Whitefish Bay in July of 2010. That’s an “honor” that comes to most every Milwaukee homeowner sooner or later – sort of like jury duty.

Years ago, people suggested that the ultimate solution was to separate the sewers in the combined sewer area, but the MMSD and its political toadies have consistently rejected that, citing the expense and disruption. Those aren’t trivial concerns, but I don’t think anybody was suggesting that all those streets be torn up at once. Why not do it gradually over time and seek federal funding help? It would be a better use of federal money than a mediocre-speed train to sparsely populated areas (not a reference to the kaput Milwaukee-to-Madison line).

If the potential impact on one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes wasn’t enough, one would think the fact that Lake Michigan is the source of metropolitan Milwaukee’s drinking water might cause the Sierra Club’s legal eagles to spring into action. After all, if a private business polluted to this extent, it would probably be fined and/or prosecuted into submission, and rightfully so.

When businesses in Madison, Milwaukee, and elsewhere constantly are required to meet the cost of environmental compliance, whether the hammer is swung by the federal EPA or the Wisconsin DNR, how fair is it for a governmental body to get a pass?

The conspiracy theorist in me has smelled a rat on several occasions. In 1993, when Milwaukee’s drinking water was contaminated with a parasite called cryptosporidium, the water intake pipe that serves the city had to be extended farther out into the lake, and improvements were made to local water plants. The sewer overflows were not identified as the culprit, but then-Mayor John Norquist did cite animal waste run-off from farms in the corridor of the Milwaukee River, which flows into Lake Michigan.

Yeah, right.

The conspiracy theorist in me also knows that the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is a public entity that is governed by politicians who are largely sympathetic to the Sierra Club’s cause. Could this be a case of selective outrage?

You can be the judge, but I’ll know the Sierra Club is completely serious about stopping environmental degradation when it hauls the MMDS into court. Lord knows, this outfit needs something to prod it toward a more complete solution.

Where on earth is Erin Brockovich when we need her?

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