State, budget shortages weaken pollution control

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Can Wisconsin fight water pollution on the cheap?

That question faces the Republican controlled government after the State Natural Resources Board approved limited plans for reducing manure contamination of public waters.

A recent report by the Legislative Audit Bureau cited defi- ciencies in the enforcement of environmental regulations on animal feedlots, private industry, and sewerage treatment plants.

The Audit Bureau report showed that over the last 10 years the DNR failed 94 percent of the time to take enforcement action against private industries and municipal sewage plants that allegedly exceeded water pollution limits.

Employees at DNR apparently didn’t have time to review reports that many of the alleged polluters had filed with the state.

Central to the issue is the num- ber of DNR employees involved in fighting water pollution. DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp told the board that money and state work rules complicate pollution-fighting efforts.

Some areas of the state have felt the impact of large dairy operations which spread millions of gallons of manure on fields. Some drinking wells in Kewaunee County have been contaminated and rendered useless.

Citizens from the state’s central sands region and northwest Wisconsin pressed the Natural Resources Board for help, saying they were afraid they would end up like Kewaunee County.

The board approved a plan to develop new rules in yet-to-bedefined “sensitive areas.”

Earlier the DNR was talking about stronger regulation of manure at concentrated animal feeding operations across the state. Alerted by the office of Gov. Scott Walker, officials of the dairy industry complained to the DNR about the costs of new rules for the entire state.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former DNR secretary, said Walker should have notified more than just farm groups. There are thousands of lake property owners whose wells and land are impacted by manure runoff.

But the real decisions will be made by Walker and the Legislature next year. They decide how much state resources will go to the pollution fighting efforts of government.

Natural Resources Board chair Terry Hilgenberg said money is needed to get things done. “Unfortunately as a board we have nothing much to say about how money comes in,” he told reporters.

Allocation of resources in the environmental arena will be watched in the development of the next state budget. That includes changes in how the Department of Justice handles prosecution of alleged polluters.

Last year total fines against polluters fell to its lowest point since 1994, according to a report in the Wisconsin State Journal. The environmental unit in the State Justice Department has dropped to its smallest size in 25 years, according to the report.

Republican Brad Schimel became attorney general in 2015 and has used his staff to fight federal clean air and water regulations which he said were excessive.

Schimel has issued a formal opinion that allowed the DNR to issue high-capacity well permits without consideration of cumulative effect on lakes, streams and groundwater.

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