Waste Hauling Into Whitewater

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 75 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

A few years (and seventy-five posts) ago, I began consideration of a local proposal to haul waste into Whitewater. Those posts became a series, with background work and discussions with people from across Wisconsin.

Last night, Whitewater announced publicly the results of a study on whether a supposed initial waste hauling plan might be feasible, using the Baker Tilly firm. The municipal government commissioned the study in March 2016, and the firm returned an opinion to the city in October 2016 that it would be infeasible.

I used the months since last year’s commissioning to read yet more, speak with others outside the city, and simply wait for the next local development. It seemed prudent to use the time patiently and productively.

The single most important result for our city is that this plan to haul waste into Whitewater will not go forward. That’s the right outcome for this community, and today this city is better off for the decision of her common council, and announcement of her city manager, to end the project.

Locally, I’ve sometimes been asked what I think of this city staff’s support for the project. It’s fair to say that there is a fundamental disagreement on the science of the project. Now or ten years from now, the case against waste hauling into Whitewater will rest on sound fiscal, economic, and environmental bases. Should a proposal arise again, as one heard predicted last night, one may be assured that the case against will be as strong, and fought even more vigorously.

I’ll not take the course of the wastewater superintendent and extend the local discussion gracelessly even at its conclusion; pride is a poor foundation for policy.

Each day one meets the world anew.

Many thanks to so many in town who were encouraging. We’ve a lovely town.

To those from across Wisconsin with whom I have productively corresponded & met, and from whom I have received analyses, studies, and sound insight: I am indebted to you. There are visits eagerly to be made, with correspondence and calls until we see each other again. There’s so much good work that you can and will carry out. You’ve your own efforts ongoing in your communities, and of course you’ve an ally here in all that you do.

It’s mild in Whitewater today: a good day, I think, for residents in this small and beautiful city.

Update on Waukesha’s Water

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 74 in a series.

Three weeks ago, I wrote about Waukesha’s need for water from the Great Lakes, due significantly because some of that community’s wells had become contaminated with radium.  See, Waukesha’s Water.  A prosperous area thereby finds itself a supplicant for water supplies from the Great Lakes, because part of her own supply has become undrinkable.

As it turns out, her request has been trimmed, and she’s not only dependent on the consortium that regulates supplies from the Great Lakes (in this case, Lake Michigan), but she’s to receive less than she hoped:

Representatives of Great Lakes states and provinces meeting Tuesday in Chicago reached preliminary agreement to remove additional portions of adjoining communities from Waukesha’s planned area to be served with Lake Michigan water.

A straw vote of the officials also found preliminary consensus to further cut the volume of water that would be delivered to Waukesha, as part of the city’s request to switch to a Lake Michigan water supply.

SeePanel further reduces area in Waukesha’s bid for Lake Michigan water @ Journal Sentinel.

It doesn’t matter that Waukesha is a prosperous community: nature’s fragility is independent of assumptions of what may happen, ignorance of what may happen, or rosy projections of that there will be no risks and no problems.

Although one hears ample insistence that potential problems are unfounded, one actually sees confirmation not of potential but actual environmental and economic hardships.

The stronger argument is to be found in actual conditions, and sadly actual conditions deriving from natural and physical limitations are worse for many communities than optimists contend.

Door County

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 73 in a series.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigate Journalism has an ongoing series about the condition of Wisconsin’s water supply, with three main topics, one of which is entitled, Failure at the Faucet. I’ve mentioned the full series before. See, Water Watch Wisconsin.

Reading that series – the work of many journalists over many months, is astounding.  One would think that the series was describing an undeveloped and impoverished place, far from Wisconsin or America. In fact, the series focuses on conditions in  our own state.

Consider their latest story,  Human waste pollutes some Wisconsin drinking water.  Veteran journalist Ron Seely describes the problem:

Manure has been blamed for much of the bacteria and viruses that pollute Wisconsin drinking water, but contamination from human waste is a problem, too.

Failing septic systems, leaking public sewer pipes and landspreading of septic waste can introduce dangerous pathogens into both rural and urban water systems.

In June 2007, 229 people were sickened by a norovirus in Door County while eating at a restaurant. Seven were hospitalized as a result of a pathogen known for spreading illness on cruise ships. The source: a leaky septic system.

In 2012, a microbiologist published research that linked widespread gastrointestinal illnesses in 14 Wisconsin communities to viruses in the public water systems. Further research showed the contaminants were likely coming from leaking municipal sewage lines….

He doesn’t stop there – his story and the full series are a catalog of statewide pollution.

Now not every community has these problems (any more than every community has Waukesha’s problem of radium contamination in some wells).

These problems are problems, so to speak, when an environment cannot manage safely or cheaply the results of human activity.  These environments are more fragile – and thus more expensive to maintain – than initial, overly-optimistic projects assume.  Even wealthy communities face these same, physical problems.  Door County, for example, is a desirable area with high property values, but that’s no immunity from the risks of contaminants.

Producing more waste, or bringing more waste into an environment, produces costs initially ignored but later impossible to ignore.  That’s not speculation: it’s the actual experience of Wisconsin communities.

The Context of It All

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 72 in a series.

This series began over a year ago, after some officials first proposed a digester energy project over two and a half years ago.  It’s worth a quick summary of where that project now stands, and the context of writing about the project.

I’d say that there have been, so far, three phases to this proposal.  In the first, Whitewater considered a project of indeterminate but possibly large size, in the second Whitewater considered an initially smaller project that would be publicly run, and now in the third Whitewater is seeking proposals through a third-party consultant for a privately-constructed waste receiving station at its public waste treatment plant.

All three proposals have in common that they involve, in uncertain (but I think possibly large) amounts, the importation of waste into Whitewater.

It’s that importation of waste from outside the city that forms the core of my interest, and opposition, to the project.  A project that recycled only locally-produced waste would be quantitatively & qualitatively different: it would not burden Whitewater and her ecosystem with wastes produced elsewhere.  No one (to my knowledge) is suggesting that Whitewater shouldn’t process waste; the argument in opposition to the project is that she shouldn’t process in small-town Whitewater waste from others outside the city.

(The argument in favor of importation says that Whitewater would have revenue gain.  I’m dubious of the revenue gain but even more so opposed to waste importation as the price of any claimed gain.)

In any event, there’s no current project under construction (as I thought by now there would be).  This means that for the moment, there’s no ongoing importation program to evaluate or to weigh against claims made for importation.

That leaves time for another line of inquiry: what’s the context of one small town’s possible project.  That context is found in the efforts of others, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, to protect their local ecosystems from environmental burdens and harm, and to preserve their communities’ reputations and property values.  That’s an ongoing matter for many communities in Wisconsin and beyond.

These communities are facing different challenges, not confined to waste digesters, but often involving waste, or other environmental hazards.  I’ve been writing about some of those communities’ experiences, and I will share more accounts from elsewhere.  There are important similarities between how communities address risks, even if there are differences between the particular risks they face.

I’ll continue writing more ahead about those communities and their experiences.

Waukesha’s Water

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 71 in a series.

Waukesha is a large suburban city, of about seventy-thousand, in a prosperous suburban county, of about four-hundred thousand.  By ordinary estimation, the residents of the city and county should have no difficulties with basic utilities and infrastructure.

And yet, Waukesha has a water supply problem:

Waukesha does not have an adequate supply of water that is fit to drink, due to radium contamination of deep groundwater supplies; and all the city’s water supply options outside the Great Lakes basin would have adverse effects on wetlands, streams and inland lakes.

To remedy this problem Waukesha is seeking water from the Great Lakes, but that request is controversial (as it’s a diversion of supplies there), and Waukesha’s request has thus far been granted only in part:

The City of Waukesha’s request for more than 10 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water was cut substantially by representatives of Great Lakes states and provinces meeting Friday in Chicago.

Waukesha’s plan to pump up to an average of 10.1 million gallons a day by midcentury will be trimmed to an average of 8.2 million gallons a day after the Great Lakes officials removed portions of three neighboring communities from a future water service area to receive lake water, as a condition of the regional group’s acceptance of the request.

SeeGreat Lakes officials trim Waukesha’s water request @ Journal Sentinel.

That a growing population will need more water is unsurprising; that’s not, however, the full cause of Waukesha’s need.  It’s that some of her existing supplies are no longer suitable for human consumption. One might have expected that more people would require more water.  What’s unexpected is that, in a prosperous county, with a prosperous county seat, in the most developed part of the state, parts of the water supply might be contaminated, and therefore unusable to the county’s residents.

If someone has said the same about a distant and impoverished place, on the other side of the world, the claim might have been more predictable (if no less unfortunate for those involved).

Yet, it’s here, in a developed, advanced place, that these inadequacies are present.  (The only advantage in this is that we have the wealth and technology to identify health hazards more easily than many societies.)

We think, often rightly, that we live in robust and safe conditions.  That’s often true, but less true than we might like: damage to the natural environment is easier to bring about than we might think (or wish).

It’s a mistake – and concerning water an expensive one – to overlook the risks to the environment that may develop even in the most prosperous places.

The State of Phosphorus Now

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 70 in a series.

Phosphorus may be used as a fertilizer, but that use comes at a price.  A community, especially a farming community, that uses phosphorus for fertilizer faces the problem of what to do with that element when large quantities spread through the environment.   Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel, in a story from 4.16.16, explains the concern and urgency regarding phosphorus:

Phosphorus can make a stalk of corn grow as tall as a basketball hoop. It can also pollute bodies of water to the point where they are unsafe for fishing or swimming.

The question is how this nutrient — a key ingredient in fertilizer — can be recovered from a lake or stream and used again.

And adding urgency to that question is that supplies are running out….

In Wisconsin, more than 1,200 bodies of water are now considered at least partially “impaired” — meaning they violate state standards and may be unfit for recreation. Phosphorus is a significant culprit.

In Whitewater, Wisconsin, the community has heard more than once from an unsuccessful candidate for local office who has touted the value of phosphorus, as though that were the end of the matter.  It’s not.

For example, Bergquist writes that at Marquette University, assistant professor Brooke Meyer is managing a half-million dollar grant, as part of a multi-year project, to find a way – not existing now – to recycle phosphorus so that it will not represent so considerable a harm to a community’s water supply. Meyer is considering different recycling possibilities, but there would have been no grant if (1) there already existed an easy recycling method and (2) phosphorus were not a hazard to the environment.

And that, in the end, represents a challenge for any importation plan: waste imported into a city that contained additional levels of phosphorus (among other possible environmentally-adverse substances) would have to be managed on top of whatever was locally used. (This would be an expression of a general problem of waste-importation, where the benefits of production – jobs, crops, etc. – exist in one place, but the detrimental waste therefrom becomes the burden of the importing city.)


WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 69 in a series.

Two weeks ago, I posted a simple question about Whitewater’s former Hawthorn Mellody milk plant: “If there had been no milk processing plant in Whitewater, would the city have constructed digester capacity as large as it now has, for importing waste into the city from other locations?”

That’s seemingly a question about a waste-importation proposal, but it’s really a question about economic development.

I posed the question because there’s more than one way to advance a community’s economy, local government’s fiscal condition, and the long-term prospects of both.

One could, for example, (1) provide the smallest possible local government, (2) provide expansive public services, or (3) develop some level of public incentives to spur private growth. The first is a minimal government approach, the second a social welfare approach, and the third a conventional public-private partnership.

Whitewater has primarily adopted that third approach, for about a generation. Whatever one thinks of that approach (and I have been a critic), it is a model that many communities have pursued, in Wisconsin and beyond. See, for example, Places Trying to Cope.

What’s different about a private, and privately-constructed, waste-importing solution to increase municipal revenues is that it separates production from disposal, placing them in different cities.

When Whitewater has a milk plant in town, she had not only the refuse to be processed, but the labor and job gains, in the same city. (At least, while the plant was doing well enough to offer labor gains to the city.) The undesirable (waste from the plant) was balanced with the desirable (jobs).

A public-private arrangement for waste-hauling into Whitewater separates good and bad, and allocates only the undesirable refuse of others’ production to Whitewater. Even if it were to work, that’s a significant departure from a model that tolerates undesirable by-products for the sake of job-sustaining production in the same town.

The View from 30,000 Feet

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 67 in a series.

For today, a simple question about waste importation into Whitewater:

301. If there had been no milk processing plant in Whitewater, would the city have constructed digester capacity as large as it now has, for importing waste into the city from other locations? That is, in cases like these, would one ordinarily separate a production facility from a waste-receiving facility?

For proponents, this question probably seems irrelevant, as there already is this capacity in Whitewater (and so one might as well use it). The unused capacity to them must seem like a happy accident, or a long-forgotten gem, again found.

And yet, it’s both relevant and material, as a truly profitable waste-importation regime could be duplicated by any city through long-term financing.

Are there really long-enduring, unique happy accidents in a capitalist system?

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

Whitewater update: I’ll spend part of the next two weeks or so working on the stand-alone website for this series, and then storing content for it there. That way I’ll have only a single location as a repository, and will re-post content (at least some) back here at FW on Mondays. I’ve gone through several themes without (yet) finding one that seems just right. It will be a long series, so there’s time to find something good.

The more I think about the series, the more interesting it is to me, and the more I think that there are related topics to be explored. It’s about a project, of course, but that project implicates our city’s view of itself and of its development. I’m opposed the the project, to be sure, but the more I hear of it, the more justified the focus (immediately and widely) seems.

Volume for Payback (Isn’t So Simple After All)

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 66 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

I posted yesterday about remarks from December on the supposed volume for payback of a waste-receiving station with today’s extra post in mind. That’s because like so much else about this digester-energy proposal, nothing that seems simple (easy money, etc.) really is simple, so to speak.

Consider this timeline:

December 2014: In a 12.14.14 meeting, Donohue presents two scenarios for energy production – a large project that former vendor Trane reportedly proposed, and a so called baby-steps proposal that Donohue was proposing. The baby-steps proposal claimed a six-year simple payback.

February 2015: Donohue & Associates produces Technical Memo 4, on the “Digestion Complex and Energy Production.” The 48-page document offers the same six-year payback scenario, on page 14.

December 2015: Wastewater Superintendent Reel makes his statement about a simple payback – an estimate that he says is a conservative one (that is, that payback could optimistically come sooner):

“The simple payback on that [a waste-receiving station at $431,000] conservatively is six years.”

So, Reel is repeating what Donohue claimed on 12.14.14, and repeated in a memo dated February 2015.

Now look ahead about two months from December 2015, to the eve of a March discussion on the project, and here is what one finds.

February 2016: Just a few months later, in a memo dated 2.25.16 (and part of the 3.1.16 Common Council packet), one finds a far longer timeline for payback, amounting to between 8.1 and 13.2 years.

Here’s that document —

Download (PDF, 436KB)

299. When did 6 years stretch to between 8.1 and 13.2 years?

300. If even this small part of the program – by its proponents’ own terms a baby-steps part – carries so great a range of possibilities, and differs so much from claims repeated over a 366 day period, what other claims will prove similarly wrong?

Update, in reply to a reader who wrote with a question: The longer timeline revealed in the 2.25.16 memo assumes no third-party investment recapture, and assumes no revenue sharing with a third-party. So a third-party agreement would push back the supposed revenue recovery dramatically, with only vastly greater amounts in tipping fees, from far greater volume or less desirable sources, changing that delayed recovery timeline.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

Volume for Payback

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 65 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

Today’s question begin is Number 298. All the questions in this series may be found in the Question Bin.

After over two years of discussion, including meetings of Whitewater’s common council, and ten selected meetings with particular community groups, and an unknown (as yet) but significant number of private meetings about waste importation, consider this declaration:

“The simple payback on that [a waste-receiving station at $431,000] conservatively is six years.”

Set aside the absurd, but oddly repeated assertion that this payback would come from discarded salad dressing and the contents of grease traps. A simple question:

298. What number of trucks, by size of truck, would be required to produce a supposedly simple payback in six years?

All these years, all these meetings, including the boasting from Whitewater’s city manager that he’s “nerdy” about these things, and yet no direct and clear mention of the volume needed to meet an estimate for payback.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

Rockford, Illinois

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 64 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

Today’s questions begin with Number 296. All the questions in this series may be found in the Question Bin.

Rockford, Illinois is a city with a population of about 151,290, that’s part of a regional wastewater district with over 1,100 miles of buried sewers.

Whitewater is a city with a population of about 14,801, with a local wastewater department with about 52 miles of sewer lines (@ 2:00 on the video).

Two years, twelve days after Whitewater’s wastewater superintendent first mentioned waste importation publicly, after the city held dozens of public (or closed) meetings, with more than one consulting firm, as part of a larger project costing over twenty-million dollars, and well over a million more in consultants’ fees, that same wastewater superintendent held out Rockford, Illinois as an example for Whitewater:

“Geographically, I can speak, Rockford is doing something like this….”

296.  Considering that Rockford alone is 10.22 times the size of Whitewater, with a wastewater district size (by extent of lines) 21.15 times as great, why would Rockford be a suitable comparison for Whitewater?

297. Wouldn’t a commitment to diligence have meant at least asking this as a follow-up question?

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

September to December 2015

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 63 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

On 9.17.15, Whitewater’s City Manager, Cameron Clapper, gave brief remarks in support of waste hauling into Whitewater. See, Text of the 9.17.15 Remarks on Waste Importation.

About three months later, on 12.15.15, the city’s Wastewater Superintendent, Tim Reel, spoke along similar lines. I’ve some of Reel’s remarks, and a transcript of them, immediately below.

September to December 2015 from John Adams on Vimeo.

“I’ll, I’ll start, jump in anywhere.  So, the, the, one of the misconceptions that we dealt with when we started talking about high-strength waste is that, uh, and I think everyone here heard it is that we were adding digesters, you know, and that, so again to make sure everyone is aware of that we are adding no capacity, you know, to our digesters, we’re not adding a digester at our location.  Um, what that high-strength waste facility or receiving, receiving station gives us is the ability to safely receive some materials which could be, um, food waste, perhaps a grease trap from a local business, um, it could be a, um, you know, we have already uh tried, for example, some spoiled salad dressing, that’s an example of something we’ve taken.  What we’re not taking about is hazardous waste, you know, coming in to the city of Whitewater, and going out there.”

There are two things to say about this for now.

First, like Clapper in September, Reel apparently thinks he’s making a strong case. He doesn’t show the slightest awareness that he might sound repetitive, and repetitive of absurdities.  He’s confident.

(Goodness knows how many times Reel and Clapper have repeated the false claim that there’s a misconception that ‘everyone here heard’ this project is about adding digesters. I debunked that straw man on 3.26.15, 264 days before Reel repeats it in December 2015.  See, The City of Whitewater Digester Clarification that Could Use a Clarification.

But he says it yet again on 12.15.15 as though he’s defending an eternal verity.  By the way,  he gets the capacity argument wrong in any event, for reasons that have to do with additional capacity that a second mixer permits.  A second digester has never been in contention, but expanding present capacity is.  Reel doesn’t seem to know the difference between a thing and its capacity.)

The bigger issue isn’t there, of course. It’s in Clapper’s contention on 9.17.15 and again on 12.15.15 ( at 27:50) that there’s nothing harmful in this, that in fact there cannot be anything harmful in this. Reel makes this distinction, too: that this isn’t about the hazardous, as they define it. I’ve yet to address Clapper’s point from 12.15, but it’s an on-camera claim that really stands in a class of its own.

That, of course, is a longer conversation for the months after the project begins.

But there’s a second issue, as important as the first. There’s a reason that some of these theories are repeated between 9.17.15 and 12.15.15: Clapper and Reel are operating in a closed circle where no one questions their claims, and so they assume they must be onto something true and right. That’s a problem, of course, but it’s one of an environment that has cosseted them and nurtured them to believe their own statements.

Over these months, I’ve come to see this project less like the Innovation Express bus (a wasteful policy) and more like a say-anything-to get-what-I-want scheme. That was the point, really, of a post from two weeks ago about Bill Ackman and his battle against Herbalife.  SeeAckman’s Right About Herbalife.

He’s convinced – rightly, I think – that Herbalife is wrong for deeper reasons than a choice between business options.

Believing this, Ackman sees that as they’re still going, he’ll keep going. But he also sees that the effort against Herbalife will not be won in Herbalife’s boardroom.

Instead, Ackman has gone outside, and is making his case there. He’s built his own website, and has videos describing Herbalife’s many false claims. I’m working on my own site, too.  (A lot still has to be done, but I like my format.) He has the patience to make his case over years.  Some conflicts are over a single event or moment; some take far longer.

I looked over some notes I had from June 2015, written on a glass board where (from that time) I tried to sketch how the months ahead might go. (It wasn’t a smart board, so I had to take a picture of my ideas.) At the time, I expected that this project would be approved by September 2015, and that I would complete questions on it by three months’ time afterward (December 2015). That would leave December 2015 to begin to submit public records requests to fill in gaps, and consideration for how records requests had been fulfilled by about March 2016 (that is, by about now, actually).

Well, I’m still in the asking questions, reviewing presentations phase. There hasn’t been much of my own work, along the lines of fiscal, economic, environmental, human health, and about a city’s political and business culture.

And yet, along the way, I have acquired a confidence like Ackman’s. His work against Herbalife is inspirational.  Months of posts (since my first on 3.26.15) only seem like a few days’ worth.

I’ll try to complete the question phase soon.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

Hawking Fallacies at a Price of Over a Million

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 62 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

In the 12.15.15 meeting at which the Donhoue firm advocated note merely wastewater upgrades but waste importation into Whitewater, Donohue’s Mike Gerbitz contends that Whitewater’s large digester capacity (no longer needed locally) is a boon to the city, and that the earlier expenditure (now excess capacity) justifies a new program of waste importation. In fact,  his assessment is ill-considered, and represents a garden-variety economic fallacy that one can easily spot and refute. (Whitewater paid over one million dollars in consulting fees for thinking such as Gerbitz’s.) Here’s his argument, appearing at 29:31 on my video of the meeting (I’ll address his claims about what other communities are doing in future post):

I’ll offer some other perspective….And a number of communities in the upper Midwest, particularly here in Wisconsin have decided to leverage some of the investment previous generations have made to make wastewater treatment more cost effective. Thirty-five years ago somebody built, somebody decided to build, very large digesters, okay? Today you’re only using a very small fraction of that capacity, that this community has paid for, and is done paying for, and has been done paying for a long time….

See, Local Government Discusses a Waste Importation Project @ Vimeo, beginning at 29:31.

Gerbitz either doesn’t know – or hopes his audience doesn’t know – that he’s committed the economic fallacy of sunk costs, of believing that past expenditures should bind future action.

On the contrary, it’s irrational to commit to a future course simply because one has spent lavishly on a project in the past – one looks at the present possibilities for spending, and decides from among all present options what’s best going forward. (I’ll show later that advocacy for waste importation going forward rests – indeed requires – ignorance of the real costs of the project, including the side-effects of it.)

Julia Galef explains the fallacy in greater detail:

So I want to introduce you to a concept known as the sunk cost fallacy. Imagine that you’re going to the store and you’re halfway there when you realize, “Oh wait, the store is actually closed today.” But you figure, “Well, I’ve already come ten blocks. I might as well just go all the way to the store, you know, so that my ten blocks of walking won’t have been wasted. Well, this is a transparently silly way to reason and I doubt that any of us would actually go all the way to a store that we knew was closed just because we’d already gone ten blocks.

But this pattern of thinking is actually surprisingly common in scenarios that are a little bit less obvious than the store example. So, say you’re in a career and it’s becoming more and more clear to you that this isn’t actually a fulfilling career for you. You’d probably be happier somewhere else. But you figure I’ll just stick with it because I don’t want my past ten years of effort and time and money to have been wasted. So the time and money and effort and whatever else you’ve already spent is what we call the sunk cost. It’s gone no matter what you do going forward. And now you’re just trying to decide given that I’ve already spent that money or time or whatever, what choice is going to produce the best outcome for my future.

And the sunk cost fallacy then means making a choice not based on what outcome you think is going to be the best going forward but instead based on a desire not to see your past investment go to waste.

Once you start paying attention to the sunk cost fallacy you’ll probably notice at least a few things that you would like to be doing differently. And maybe those will be small scale things like, in my case, I now am much more willing to just abandon a book if a hundred pages in I conclude that I’m not enjoying it and I’m, you know, not getting any value out of it rather than trudging through the remaining 200-300 pages of the book just because I don’t want, you know, my past investment of a hundred pages, the time that I spent reading those hundred pages to go to waste.

And you might notice some large things, too. For example, I was in a Ph.D. program and started realizing, “Gee, this really isn’t the field for me.” And you know, it’s a shame that I have spent the last several years preparing for and working in this Ph.D. program but I genuinely predict going forward that I’d be happier if I switched to another field. And sometimes it really does take time to fully acknowledge to yourself that you don’t have any good reason to stick with the job or Ph.D. or project that you’ve been working on so long because sunk costs are painful. But at least having the sunk cost fallacy on your radar means that you have the opportunity at least to push past that and make the choice that instead will lead to the better outcomes for your future.

SeeJulia Galef: The Sunk Costs Fallacy.

(It’s worth noting that attempts to refute the claim that costs should be calculated on the margin – and sunk costs ignored – often involve either appeals to the value of concealing past mistakes or contentions that people in real-world situations disregard an on-the margin analysis. Concealing past mistakes is of no advantage for policy here, and does not apply to a capacity now fallen into desuetude when a nearby dairy left the area; claims that people sometimes act otherwise than by following a margin-based assessment only show that some – such as Gerbitz, in this case – either act wastefully or seek to persuade others against a rational outcome.)

Over a million dollars for these consultants – but for it all, garden-variety error presented as sound advice.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

‘Until That Second Digester is More Utilized’

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 61 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

We saw in last week’s post that actual elements of the importation project that City Manager Clapper claims would ‘experimental’ belie his contention. Far from a project being designed to test waste-importation, this is a project that from the very beginning will be able to accommodate heavy truck traffic. See, Post 60, ‘A Truck Loop Specified for Heavy Truck Traffic.’

This week, one sees the same, simple truth, in contradiction to Mr. Clapper’s claims that this is a provision or experimental project: this project even includes a second, new digester mixer, allowing for a volume of importation beyond any existing needs.

In the video below. the project engineer from the Donohue firm, Nathan Cassity, concedes that a second digester mixer is not now needed to manage existing local capacity:

“The first digester already has a mixing system, the second one doesn’t. Umm, the thought there was that digester really is a backup digester and that item could be delayed until that second digester is more util…utilized, excuse me.”

‘Until That Second Digester is More Utilized’ from John Adams on Vimeo.

It’s worth noting that Whitewater no longer has a need for past digester capacity because her economy no longer has a large, commercial enterprise that would use one.  City Manager Clapper and Wastewater Superintendent Reel could only make use of a second digester (with mixer) through significant, persistent, waste importation into Whitewater.

Despite even the vendor-engineer’s admission that a second mixer would be necessary now, there is the claim that the second digester and mixer would have a role only ‘when that second digester ‘is more util…utilized, excuse me.’

That far greater utilization, so to speak, cannot come from local use, as we do not have enough local need. That far greater utilization, so to speak, cannot come from mere experimentation, as no local experiment could possibly justify a processing capacity so considerable.

In fact, there is only one method by which the additional capacity that Mr. Clapper wants could be ‘utilized’: through large-scale importation into Whitewater of other cities’ unwanted waste.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

‘A Truck Loop Specified for Heavy Truck Traffic’

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 60 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

I mentioned that I would look at a few more aspects of Whitewater’s 12.15.15 meeting on wastewater upgrades and waste importation, perhaps also addressing a few scattered topics, and then collect my set of questions, and pose requests at law where additional information is needed. Those few posts also allow time to upgrade the WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN website, and get it ready for a proper launch. There’s much to do after these questions are collected, and it makes sense to progress more quickly and firmly. Whitewater’s Common Council may take some action on the project in March, but the more one looks at this project, the less reasonable it is to consider the project primarily as a local matter. Local actions are illustrative for comparisons with other communities.

In the video below, a representative of the Donohue engineering firm, a firm paid over one million dollars for consulting on the project in addition to the twenty-million construction cost, describes the location of the plant for the purposes of importing waste:

“Located out on a truck loop really speci…specified for heavy truck traffic….”

I’ve embedded the clip through Vine, as I’m interested in ways to present brief remarks from public meetings (apart from this series). It’s set to load automatically but is not set to play audio automatically. (At least to my mind at this time, autoplaying audio seems jarring. An alternative presentation method would be to allow audio autoplaying initially but mute it after a few days’ time of the clip being on my sites. The advantage of short clips, of course, is that they capture brief but telling remarks. As it is now, one can click the speaker button on the video’s lower right corner to hear the audio.)

Today’s questions begin with Number 292. All the questions in this series may be found in the Question Bin.

Here are a few questions about the Donohue representative’s remarks:

292. What’s the maximum truck volume that this project can accommodate as presented?

293. What’s the actual truck volume that this project would require even under its initial formulation?

294. Why does the Donohue representative (Nathan Cassity) expressly mentions that waste importation would take place on ‘a truck loop really specified for heavy truck traffic’ if he didn’t think that available capacity was relevant and material to the project? (The alternative, it seems, would require one to believe that Mr. Cassity simply utters irrelevant and immaterial remarks in public meetings. If the alternative should improbably be true, perhaps Whitewater’s local government might ask for a discount on the million-plus consulting fee.)

295. After well over two years of discussions and presentations about waste importation – including ten presentations from City Manager Clapper to small, cherry-picked insiders’ groups – City Manager Clapper and Wastewater Superintendent Reel now contend that six or more years of waste importation would be mere experimentation. Isn’t it obvious that use of the term experimentation for their proposed effort is a transparent attempt to downplay a project that the vendor on which they rely candidly admits would use ‘a truck loop really specified for heavy truck traffic’?

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

The Contentions Made in a Single Meeting

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 59 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

On 12.15.15, Whitewater, Wisconsin considered both upgrades to her wastewater facility and as part of those claimed upgrades a waste-importation plan, bringing in waste from other cities. The December 15th meeting was a cornucopia of contentions about the entire project, slightly more than two years’ time from when the city’s wastewater superintendent presented publicly the possibility of waste importation to the city. (By his own account, he had been discussing the idea from months previously, and found encouragement for the idea from, of all people, a medical doctor on the Whitewater Common Council.)

Today, an outline of the contentions as recorded at the 12.15.15 meeting to consider over the next several weeks:

  • On ‘heavy truck traffic’ that the project contemplates (10:27 on video.)
  • On a backup mixer on the second, existing digester, that would be available when the second digester would be ‘more utilized.’  (11:00 on video.)
  • Repetition again of the oft-refuted claim that others in the community are concerned about adding digesters.  (25:30 on video.)
  • Volume of supposed ‘food waste’, ‘grease trap’ contents, and ‘spoiled salad dressing’ to be processed at the plant. (26:12 on video.)
  • Defining hazardous waste. (26:29 on video.)
  • The enumerated calculations – not the mere assertion – on a claimed payback of six-years. (27:23 on video.)
  • The claim about the safety of microorganisms that one finds in a human stomach or colon.  (27:58 on the video.)
  • The contention (from City Manager Clapper) that what does not ‘glow’ does not – would not – injure.  (28:00 on video.)
  • The contention (from Mike Gerbitz of Donohue) that prior expenditures for an existing digester justify additional use & expenditures for the same.  (29:33 on the video.)
  • The contention (from Mike Gerbitz of Donohue) that other communities have programs like the importation proposal for Whitewater.  (30:25 on the video.)
  • The contention that use of a digester is the ‘one way’ to reduce costs.  (31:00 on the video.)
  • Implications of promises of the project’s cost underestimating actual costs with engineering fees.  (35:45 on the video.)
  • Actual supplies of so-called high-strength waste.  (37:24 on the video.)
  • The contention (from Wastewater Superintendent Reel) that Rockford has a similar program to the one proposed for Whitewater (37:24 on video.)
  • Contention that long-distance haulers travel long distances because only some cities have capacity.  (38:40 on the video.)
  • Contention that the waste processed elsewhere would be similar to the waste that Whitewater would process.  (39:30 on the video.)
  • Contention (from Reel) that there is no order omitted from an anaerobic digester.  (40:49 on the video.)
  • Contention (from City Manager Clapper) that bad press, etc., comes from operating aerobic digesters.  (41:00 on the video.)
  • Contention about the contents placed conventionally with anaerobic digesters (41:15 on the video.)
  • Discussion about the actual conditions at the Waunakee digester.  (41:45 on the video.)
  • Discussion about how tipping fees are calculated.  (45:15 on the video.)

This is not all that’s there in the 12.15.15 meeting, of course – as much of the discussion involves millions for plant upgrades elsewhere – but after two years’ consideration it’s a good set of points to consider before collecting all questions thus posed.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

Answering Three Questions

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 58 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

I received an email over the weekend which posed a few questions about this series (and then veered into topics unrelated). I’ll post a summary of the questions and my replies (sent via email already, in greater detail).

1. Shouldn’t city leaders receive the benefit of the doubt in what they do? It’s a political organization, not a child, that one’s considering when one considers municipal policy.

Look around Wisconsin, whatever one’s politics, and then contend with seriousness that government deserves the benefit of the doubt in long-range policies with fiscal, economic, environmental, health, and business culture implications (like this one). If you’re a Republican, do you feel that policies enacted by Democrats necessarily require the benefit of the doubt? If you’re a Democrat, do you feel that policies enacted by Republicans necessarily require the benefit of the doubt?

There just aren’t many people who see things so trustingly. Perhaps once, but events have a way of sobering one’s views.

The implication, as the emailer posed it more fully, is that it as disrespectful to question this city administration’s proposal. On the contrary, it’s a measure of respect to consider the proposal in detail, as presented.

2. Does this series depend on Whitewater going forward with waste importation? No, I’ll write about what happens when it happens, and focus on events where they happen. If Whitewater goes forward with waste-importation, then I will continue to focus on that local project. Having the project close-at-hand makes some work easier, and offers a long-range project to consider.

Still, there’s no reason to write about what’s not happening. If Whitewater’s government ceases the effort, then I will redirect the series to other communities, and related topics, in the state.

But what happens, here or elsewhere, is out of my hands. I’d guess that Whitewater will proceed with the project, but it’s just a guess. (The fact that as recently as 1.19.16 a member of Whitewater’s Common Council described the likelihood of passage as a ‘squeaker’ shows that a full-time staff can get just about anything it wants locally.) There’s not, to my mind, the slightest chance that this project will look like a close-call, or a squeaker, to a wider audience. That’s part of my interest: why do some communities reject these projects, and why are some willing to swallow them?

3. Why do you think city government is doing this, except to make money for Whitewater? I’m not certain of the motivation, but the question implicates revenue-generation for the government, not for residents. These two are not the same. One can confidently answer: some projects cause more harm than good. This seems likely to be one of those projects.

Next up: The Contentions Made in a Single Meeting.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

The Water Problems in Wisconsin

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 57 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

I promised to begin reviewing by the particulars of a 12.15.15 discussion of waste importation. I’ll hold off to share news about a series just published over the weekend about environmental risks to Wisconsin’s water supply. Environmental issues are a huge topic for Wisconsinites elsewhere in the state – and in those places they attract concern from all parts of the political spectrum.

This series has been going on for a bit now, and one of the things that strikes me about the discussion in Whitewater, Wisconsin is that for full-time officials it takes place as though there were no other developments anywhere else in the state or nation (except occasional, brief & inapplicable mentions of supposedly successful projects outside the city).

One could say that part of this problem is one of the press – that the area near Whitewater is a black hole for good reporting – but that’s only part of the problem. One could say that some full-time officials who tout waste importation are ignorant, but that’s only part of the problem. For a place like Whitewater, it seems clear that some topics don’t come up because some officials – despite formal schooling – simply shy from considering them, or concoct nutty theories of biology, etc. (There’s more of the latter in the 12.15.15 discussion.)

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, there’s far less quiet, and far more discussion.  See, Despite state efforts, arsenic continues to poison many private wells in Wisconsin.

(Whitewater postscript : Throughout this series, local full-time officials have repeated the same irrelevant claims, and the same false claims, no matter how often refuted. Part of the value of the discussion at the 12.15.15 meeting is to show how someone like Whitewater’s wastewater superintendent simply repeats falsehoods and refuted claims with abandon. Taking his remarks over these years, word by word, and showing them to others would, by itself, be a memorial of municipal mendacity. So, to be clear: I’m not alleging there’s arsenic in Whitewater’s water; I’m showing the clip to illustrate that Wisconsinites are concerned about environmental issues, generally. It’s a growing topic across party lines in other parts of the state.)

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

Local Government Discusses a Waste-Importation Plan

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 56 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

Whitewater, Wisconsin’s city official began public discussion of a waste importation plan on 12.3.2013; by December 15, 2015, they’d had two years’ time to plan for both waste importation and wastewater upgrades. In the clip above, one sees the fruits of those 742 days. The discussion is a clear look at the quality of reasoning, planning, and expectations of full-time city officials and the outside engineering vendor on whom they are so evidently reliant.

In the immediate weeks ahead, I will review this meeting, discussion item by discussion item. It’s an exercise well worth undertaking. If there are other open-session items from Whitewater’s city administration about waste importation, I’ll add them, too. From those items I’ll generate questions for the Question Bin.

After that’s done, it will be time to review all the questions stored in that repository, and see which critical questions lack information. Vital pieces of information left unanswered, if any, can form the basis of public records requests. Those requests may generate additional questions, or require subsequent recourse. Work like this is an orderly, reasoned process. See, for a post in which I outline the progressive method one should adopt, Steps for Blogging on a Policy or Proposal.

One other point’s germane: a long video clip is useful for generating questions, but a video documentary including officials’ statements would not use (in full) an hours-long meeting.  No one does that.  Instead, one selects and includes for relevance and significance, with a pointer to the full, recorded meeting, elsewhere.  Along the way, I’ll start highlighting material and relevant clips, ones much shorter than those I’ve used now for question-generating.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.

A Bit More About Methane

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 55 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

I’ve posted before about methane, but only as a foretaste of more on the subject (Methane on 11.23.15 and What’s a Greenhouse Gas? last week on 1.4.16).

Here’s another appetizer along those same lines. My point is not that Whitewater, Wisconsin would see huge methane leaks, but that touting methane gas as clean and green is an effort grounded in either ignorance or chicanery.

Consider the scene from the Pacific west, now afflicting the unfortunate residents of Porter Ranch, California, with an honest assessment of methane:

The single biggest contributor to climate change in California is a blown-out natural gas well more than 8,700ft underground, state authorities and campaign groups said Monday.

The broken well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage site has released more than 77,000 metric tons of the powerful climate pollutant methane since the rupture was first detected on 23 October, according to a counter created by the Environmental Defense Fund.

Methane is a fast-acting climate pollutant – more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame.

Experts believe the breach, which has forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents from the town of Porter Ranch, is the largest ever in the US.

Locals have complained of headaches, sore throats, nosebleeds and nausea, caused by the rotten-egg smell of the odorant added to the gas to aid leak detection by SoCalGas, the utility that operates the natural gas storage site.

About 1,000 people are suing the company. There are also concerns about the leak’s effect on smog and ozone. The company said it was monitoring air quality….

SeeA single gas well leak is California’s biggest contributor to climate change @ The Guardian.

Methane may be found or recovered: it’s deleterious either way.

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Appearing at whengreenturnsbrown.com and re-posted Mondays @ 10 AM here on FREE WHITEWATER.