DNR chief defends agency's work at budget hearing

By Todd Richmond, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Democrats on the Legislature’s budget committee accused Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp on Thursday of failing to protect the environment, criticizing her for revising climate change language on the agency’s website, ignoring the impact of high-capacity wells on state waters and calling her soft on polluters.

Stepp appeared before the Joint Finance Committee to provide a briefing on the DNR’s portion of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 state budget. Just as she did on Wednesday with Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Stevens Point Democrat, vented years of frustration over the agency’s policies.

Shankland chided Stepp for scrubbing language from the DNR’s website that said human activities are the main cause of climate change and replacing it with wording that the cause of climate change is still open to debate.

She also questioned how the DNR can ignore the cumulative impact of high-capacity wells on state groundwater, lakes and streams. Conservationists have long argued the wells have depleted aquifers and lakes in the central sands region, which Shankland represents.

She also accused Stepp of falling down on pollution enforcement. She noted the number of fines has dropped since Walker appointed her; an audit last summer found the agency hadn’t followed its own policies on regulating pollution for large livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants over the past decade; and federal officials are considering revoking the DNR’s authority to enforce the Clean Water Act amid environmental groups’ allegations that the DNR hasn’t been complying with it.

“What is the DNR’s core mission?” Shankland said. “It doesn’t appear you’re actually doing your job as a regulatory agency.”

Stepp called Shankland’s accusations unfair.

She said the agency changed the climate change language because the wording didn’t accurately reflect debate about cause, and said it’s not the DNR’s place to offer opinions on climate change.

That sparked a fierce rebuke from Shankland, who insisted there’s no doubt humans are causing climate change that will affect the entire world. Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat, tried to ask Stepp what she personally believed about climate change but committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren forbid it as irrelevant. Stepp said the agency is simply trying to manage climate change.

“The conversations going on worldwide are best left outside of the department,” Stepp said.

On wells, Stepp said it’s difficult to evaluate cumulative effects because of a lack of definitions.

“It’s outside my authority to define terms like that,” Stepp said. “My job is to enforce policies you make.”

Schimel issued a legal opinion last year saying the DNR lacked the authority to consider cumulative impacts, but Stepp didn’t mention it.

As for pollution enforcement, Stepp said the DNR has shifted toward talking with potential polluters on the front end about what’s expected of them and when they violate regulations the agency tries first to remedy the problem before levying fines, which can create litigation that can drag on for years. She said that approach is better for the environment in the long run.

She said the agency has addressed 73 of 75 deficiencies the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified with the DNR’s Clean Water Act enforcement and she’s confident the DNR will retain its enforcement authority.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee questioned why the governor’s budget includes a provision that would eliminate the agency’s Natural Resources magazine. Stepp said writing articles for the magazine takes time away from DNR staff’s core duties and the agency can reach far more people through its website and social media.

Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, a Neenah Republican, said he still likes to read hard copies of newspapers and older people still like to have physical magazines. He asked Stepp to consider phasing out the magazine instead of ending it abruptly.