“Assembly Republicans on Tuesday voted to reject regulations that would have required all Wisconsin communities to disinfect their drinking systems, while Democrats argued the GOP move would lead to tainted water and more illnesses.”
“In 2011, the first year Walker was in office, inspections fell in the following areas compared with the previous year , according to DNR records: Large farms, 46%; Private wells, 36%; Hazardous waste, 32%; Storm-water runoff, 26%; Solid waste and landfills, 18%; Air quality, 16%; Environmental cleanup sites, 13%.”
“A top political appointee at the state Department of Natural Resources chose not to send a complaint against an Oconomowoc waste hauler to the Department of Justice for prosecution despite findings by agency staff that the company was treating fields with so much human waste from septic tanks it risked poisoning nearby wells, DNR records show.
“Gunderson, a former Republican state representative, received $750 in campaign contributions from the owner of the company, Richard Herr, and Herr’s wife in 2006 and 2008.”
“Environmental enforcement activity by the state Department of Natural Resources has dropped dramatically in the past two years, according to data from the agency, with the number of permit violation notices hitting a 12-year low in 2011.
“DNR officials say the decrease is partly caused by an enforcement staff that's been hit hard by budget cuts.
“But others see a darker side to that approach. Critics, including current employees and recently retired agency officials, say they see tough regulation and enforcement being de-emphasized by politically appointed administrators, and they worry it is happening at the expense of the agency's traditional and legally mandated duties of oversight and environmental protection.”
“An administrative law judge says ‘massive regulatory failure’ led to groundwater contamination in a dairy farming region and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources must use its powers to prevent further pollution.
“According to testimony, Boldt noted, 50 percent of the tested private wells in the town are contaminated and at least 30 percent of private wells tested in Kewaunee County. The wells tested positive for contaminants including nitrates and E. coli bacteria.”
“In his ruling, however, Boldt faulted the DNR for failing to use laws that are already in place, such as statutes that give it the authority to require monitoring wells in regions that are more susceptible to pollution because of the underlying geology.”
“Since 2011, the state has said it couldn’t meet EPA deadlines, then missed deadlines it set for itself; and over the same period the DNR’s authority has been weakened by changes in state laws, cuts in agency staff, and court rulings the agency has sought, Wright said.
“The petition cites EPA records indicating nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin water polluters are operating under the terms of expired permits because the DNR has a backlog of more than 200 applications for permit renewals.”
“The bureau has a total of 59.4 budgeted positions, although 9.4 are currently vacant. That would a 31% cut in total budgeted positions and a reduction of nearly 20% of the positions now filled in the bureau.
“All told, Walker's budget would cut 66 positions from the DNR. Of this, more than 25% would come from the science group.”
“Dozens of former state Department of Natural Resources scientists and managers say state leaders are endangering water quality by cutting DNR budgets, ignoring effects of climate change, reducing enforcement activity and disregarding scientific and legal issues when approving pollution permits.”
“Fines paid by Wisconsin polluters fell to a 30-year low in 2015 in the latest sign that enforcement of laws protecting the environment has been on the wane in recent years, according to data released Wednesday by a statewide conservation group.”
“The state Assembly’s Republican majority on Tuesday passed bills including a rollback of lake and wetland protections, new constraints on local power to control pollution and a fundamental change in the way judges handle environmental lawsuits.”
“Responding to strong complaints from Wisconsin’s dairy industry, the state Department of Natural Resources quietly narrowed the scope of rules it is writing to reduce health hazards from hundreds of millions of gallons of manure spread on farm fields each year.
“An industry representative said the DNR’s initial plan for rule-making would have been much too costly, in part because it would have generally reduced the amount of manure that could be applied per acre, requiring dairy operators to obtain more land.”
“A state audit has found Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources been lax about monitoring large livestock farms and municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants, in part because the agency doesn't have enough staff to investigate the potentially dangerous water runoff.
“A Legislative Audit Bureau report released Friday found the DNR didn't consistently follow its own policies when sending enforcement letters about violations. It found the DNR only sent notices for 33 of the 558 instances they should have over the past decade.”
“State job vacancies that have been linked to weak regulation of pollution began climbing again last year after falling from a 14-year high after Gov. Scott Walker took office.
“One in five state Department of Natural Resources positions was unfilled in July 2011, the highest vacancy rate in the 2002-2015 period covered by staffing data the DNR provided to the Wisconsin State Journal.”
“State regulators can’t consider the cumulative effect that hundreds of high-capacity wells exert on lakes, streams and groundwater when deciding whether to approve new wells, under a formal opinion issued Tuesday by Attorney General Brad Schimel.
“Issued at the request of Republican lawmakers who complained about delays in state permits for wells that pump 100,000 gallons per day — typically large farms and food processors — Schimel’s opinion says a series of court rulings over the years had gradually expanded state authority to protect public waters.”
“Wisconsin Republicans won an elusive victory Friday as the Department of Natural Resources quietly agreed to narrow its oversight of high-capacity wells that have been blamed for drying up rivers and shrinking lakes.
“Following guidance provided by state Attorney General Brad Schimel in an opinion issued May 10, the agency will no longer consider the cumulative impact of nearby wells on the aquifer or surface water when deciding whether to permit a well, and it will no longer impose monitoring requirements on well operators.”
“Schimel, a Republican who took office in 2015, has faced criticism from conservationists and Democrats for his environmental stances and what they see as excessive partisanship. This year, he issued a formal opinion that had the effect of rolling back state powers to protect water from high-capacity wells.
“Meanwhile, the environmental protection unit’s staff this year shrunk to its smallest size in 25 years, continuing a long-term trend as state regulators sought fewer fines from polluters.”
“The Wisconsin Department of Justice environmental protection unit has shrunk to its smallest size in 25 years as state environmental regulators seek fewer fines from polluters.
“Last year, total fines against polluters dropped to their lowest point since at least 1994, falling below $1 million for only the second time during that period, the data show.”
“Up to 60 percent of sampled wells in a Kewaunee County study contained fecal microbes, many of which are capable of making people and calves sick, a new scientific study has found.
“The researchers cautioned that the percentage of wells with microbial contamination may be even higher than their data show, since the 131 targeted wells were sampled only once during the study period, from April 2016 to March 2017.”
“Around a third of Wisconsin’s large-scale animal farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, are currently operating under expired permits, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website. Many of the permits expired in 2016.
“Operating a farm with an expired permit is not an uncommon or illegal practice, but it is a source of frustration for farmers and residents concerned about oversight.”
“Republicans have long criticized the DNR, saying its pollution and hunting regulations are too strict, making it difficult for businesses to expand and draining the fun from outdoor sports. Walker’s three state budgets cut $59 million from the DNR and eliminated nearly 200 positions, including half of its science researchers.
“The budgets also have scaled back the stewardship program and removed support for state parks, leaving them to survive on fees. That’s created a $1.4 million deficit in the parks account, and Walker’s now mulling raising access fees.
“In 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited 75 deficiencies in how the DNR handles water regulation. Two environmental groups sued the DNR in 2014 to force the agency to adopt federal air pollution standards that were published a year earlier. The agency finally adopted them late last year.
“This past June, state auditors found that the agency wasn’t following its own policies for policing pollution from large livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants.”
“Anna J. Wildeman worked as a Wisconsin Dairy Business Association lobbyist and represented dairy interests when they faced complaints about environmental damage from high-capacity wells and manure from 2007 through 2015.
“Manure and nutrients from dairy and other agricultural businesses are the state’s most widespread water pollution problem, and they have often been the target of state enforcement efforts the environmental protection unit handles.”
“In Gov. Scott Walker’s final weeks in office, the state business lobby is trying to enact measures Republican lawmakers failed to pass previously that would place more authority for environmental protections under direct control of the Legislature.
“Critics said new legal standards for certain paperwork could within six months jeopardize programs that enhance fishing, hunting, natural areas and the quality of the state’s air and water. Meanwhile taxpayers would face costs for litigation and increased administrative activities, conservation groups said.”
“Rural communities call it their own, private Flint – a diffuse, creeping water crisis tied to industrial farms and slack regulations that for years has tainted thousands of residential wells across the Midwest and beyond.
“In Wisconsin and other Midwestern states where Republicans run the government, environmental groups say that politicians have cut budgets for environmental enforcement and inspections and weakened pollution rules.”
“The first systematic study of well water in southwest Wisconsin found bacterial and chemical contamination at rates as bad as — and possibly worse than — areas targeted by new state water protection rules.
“Some 42 percent of 301 randomly selected wells tested in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties exceed federal health standards for bacteria that can come from animal or human waste, or for a toxic fertilizer residue.
“Walker’s DNR declined to participate in the three-county study, said Scott Laeser, water program director for the nonprofit Clean Wisconsin, which helped coordinate funding. A DNR spokesman declined to comment.”