Just over a month ago, I received a number of calls and emails from citizens who had heard an April Fools story that the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was planning to sell the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail to Disney.
It generated a lot of attention because – as ridiculous as this story sounded – many people believed that it was true. Given the recent DNR pollution scandal that was recently exposed by the Wisconsin State Journal, selling a bike trail to Disney doesn’t sound quite as outlandish anymore.
Last week, journalists uncovered that a business with close political ties to high-ranking officials in the DNR Secretary’s office was able to avoid prosecution after being caught illegally dumping human waste from septic tanks. DNR staff noted that the Oconomowoc waste hauler at the heart of this story has a history of serious law violations and, in this case, had illegally dumped so much human waste into nearby fields that up to 40 private homeowner water wells were put at risk of being contaminated.
Rather than working to protect the drinking water of these residents, high-level DNR political appointees overruled the advice of their staff and fought to make sure that the polluting company wasn’t referred to the state’s Justice Department for further investigation or held accountable for the cleanup of this waste. Jonathan Becker, the head of the state’s Ethics and Accountability Division, noted that “it sounds like people here may have been exerting political influence.”
It sends the wrong message to residents of this state when polluters with close political ties are given preferential treatment over the homeowners and families who are victims of corporate negligence. As a result of the DNR Secretary’s decision not to prosecute this polluter, innocent residents have been left to deal with potential well-water contamination on their own. This troubling situation has led four former DNR Secretaries from both Democratic and Republican administrations to come out and publicly criticize the current leadership with some calling the recent situation "unprecedented," "outrageous," and "indefensible."
Families and small businesses across our state are all victims when preferential treatment is given to large corporations that cut corners and violate the law. In order to protect the health of our families and ensure a level playing field for all businesses, we need to take a fair and rational approach to enforcing important water-quality and pollution standards. Wisconsin residents and businesses deserve nothing less.
Jennifer Shilling represents the 32nd Senate District which covers La Crosse, Vernon, Crawford and parts of Monroe and Richland Counties.