Air, water issues face increasing scrutiny

CAPITOL NEWSLETTER
Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

An industry-friendly Dept. of Natural Resources is facing two major challenges from conservation groups over its alleged lax regulatory efforts on air and water fronts.

The conservation groups have asked the courts to enforce morestringent standards in the approval process for high-capacity wells. The DNR approved more than 20 well permits in late September.

Last spring Atty. Gen. Brad Schimel effectively triggered the fight with a formal legal opinion holding that a 2011 law rolled back the agency’s authority to regulate wells.

The DNR could enforce only environmental standards which were specifically spelled out in state law, according to Schimel. That led to the DNR announcing it could not examine the cumulative impact on wells or surface water when it examined permits for the high-capacity wells.

Schimel, a Republican, issued the opinion at the request of several Republican legislators.

In the wake of Schimel’s opinion, the DNR said it will quit imposing monitoring requirements on well operators. The agency also said existing well operators could ask for reconsideration of earlier requirements placed on their operations.

In a separate legal move, conservation groups have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene and block changes in proposed DNR airpollution efforts.

At issue is the potential impact of small, airborne particles that occur in frac-sand mining. Waiting in the wings is possible approval by the DNR of a halfdozen mining permits.

The conservation groups want the EPA to oppose the DNR’s approach. The state agency has proposed allowing a Barron County firm to expand its production without estimating, monitoring or controlling the small particles.

If EPA objects, the state would have to redo its permit for the Barron County operation.

The EPA recently completed a review of DNR into a broader investigation of the state’s enforcement of the federal Clean Air Act. The Wisconsin agency has been given approval to enforcement the federal law in the state.

Fourteen months ago, EPA officials were critical of Wisconsin’ approach on frac-sand mining, saying the state guidelines on the issue were flawed.

In a letter to DNR air regulators, the EPA said the guidelines falsely asserted the machine processes did not emit the tiny particles. Those assertions, made through a broad statement, were not accurate or appropriate, it said.

“The DNR is ignoring its responsibilities to protect the air under federal law,” asserted Sarah Geers, an attorney for the conservation groups.

Those challenging the perceived retreat on rules for high-capacity wells claim the state’s role was changed to appease agricultural interests and want a return to the earlier approach. They cite constitutional requirements to protect public water, lakes and streams.

“Our state government isn’t doing that, and they haven’t been doing it for a long time,’ said Carl Sinderbrand, a lawyer representing Clean Wisconsin, a nonprofit environmental-protection organization.

The issues are likely to be a major political topic in western and northern Wisconsin in the 2018 elections.


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