Pol­luter penal­ties drop 78%

State data show plunge in 2015

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By LEE BERGQUIST [email protected]­nalsen­tinel.com

Fi­nan­cial penal­ties for vi­o­la­tions of Wis­con­sin en­vi­ron­men­tal laws fell sharply in 2015 to their low­est level in at least a decade.

Data re­leased by a con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion show for­fei­tures paid by in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies for vi­o­lat­ing state law to­taled $306,834 last year.

That’s down 78% from nearly $1.4 mil­lion paid out in 2014. It’s also the low­est amount paid out for vi­o­la­tions dat­ing back to at least 2006, ac­cord­ing to data.

The fig­ures are the most re­cent show­ing Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources en­force­ment ac­tiv­ity has dropped off un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Gov. Scott Walker, a Repub­li­can who took of­fice in 2011 with a pro-busi­ness agenda and a vow to make the DNR more friendly to the pri­vate sec­tor.

The statis­tics show for­fei­tures col­lected be­tween 2006 and 2010 un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Gov. Jim Doyle, a Demo­crat, to­taled $15.2 mil­lion.

Dur­ing Walker’s 2011’15 ten­ure, it dropped more than half to $6.4 mil­lion.

The data were re­leased by the Wis­con­sin Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion on Wed­nes­day from pub­lic records the or­ga­ni­za­tion says it re­ceived from an em­ployee in state gov­ern­ment. It de­clined to iden­tify the source.

The DNR said it could not cor­rob­o­rate the fig­ures. Spokesman An­drew Sav­a­gian said in an email that “en­force­ment staff can’t tell from the for­mat if this is our data.” The Depart­ment of Jus­tice, which pros­e­cutes

cases re­ferred by the DNR, also said it could not im­me­di­ately vouch for the ac­cu­racy of the data.

The Milwaukee Jour­nal Sen­tinel re­ported in Fe­bru­ary on a drop in en­force­ment ac­tiv­ity in 2015 in sev­eral categories. The paper re­ported the num­ber of cases the agency ac­cepted; the num­ber of no­tices of vi­o­la­tion; and the num­ber of re­fer­rals to the Depart­ment of Jus­tice all fell in 2015 com­pared to the av­er­age be­tween 2010 and 2014.

The paper has pre­vi­ously re­ported en­force­ment drops in other years of the Walker ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Ear­lier this year, Walker said de­clin­ing en­force­ment was a good sign be­cause it showed the DNR has been work­ing up­front with the pub­lic to avoid prob­lems.

“My goal is to have no ci­ta­tions, be­cause when an agency is­sues a ci­ta­tion, that means some­thing went wrong,” Walker told re­porters.

Ac­cord­ing to data from the Wis­con­sin Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion, there were no fi­nan­cial penal­ties in 2015 that in­volved con­fined an­i­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions, which are large-scale farms also known as CAFOs that have come un­der fire from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists.

There were also no for­fei­tures in categories cov­er­ing haz­ardous waste and pub­lic water sup­plies, ac­cord­ing to the group.

Fi­nan­cial penal­ties for waste­water man­age­ment, which in­volve per­mits to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and fac­to­ries that treat water be­fore re­leas­ing it to pub­lic wa­ter­ways, fell from a 10-year av­er­age of $455,407 to $12,057 last year.

“I don’t have the an­swer to why it has fallen, but it’s too dra­matic,” Ge­orge Meyer, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Wis­con­sin Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion, said of the for­fei­ture to­tals.

Meyer headed up the DNR un­der for­mer Govs. Tommy Thomp­son and Scott McCal­lum, both Repub­li­cans, and pre­vi­ously served as en­force­ment ad­min­is­tra­tor at the agency.

In Meyer’s view, the pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions are: fewer on­site in­spec­tions by the DNR; a drop in the num­ber of pros­e­cutable cases re­ferred to the Jus­tice Depart­ment; or a re­duced num­ber of prose­cu­tions by the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

Meyer said a trend of fewer sanc­tions makes it un­fair for the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple and busi­nesses that fol­low the law.

“Ninety-five to 99% of the com­pa­nies out there are do­ing an out­stand­ing job with com­pli­ance,” Meyer said. “These are the 5% who are not com­ply­ing with the law. They’re cut­ting cor­ners.

“It’s good busi­ness to have an ef­fec­tive de­ter­rent.”

The DNR said in an email that the goal of the agency is to “in­crease com­pli­ance and re­duce the need for en­force­ment ac­tions. DNR and DOJ con­tinue to take en­vi­ron­men­tal en­force­ment se­ri­ously and are com­mit­ted to ad­dress­ing vi­o­la­tions.”

The agency says it has used a “stepped en­force­ment” for decades to re­solve cases at the low­est level of penalty for the cir­cum­stance.

Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman Johnny Kore­menos said in a state­ment:

“At­tor­ney Gen­eral Schimel takes his pros­e­cu­to­rial role se­ri­ously and en­sures all re­fer­rals re­ceived by the Wis­con­sin Depart­ment of Jus­tice from the Wis­con­sin Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources are thor­oughly re­viewed and DOJ at­tor­neys work dili­gently to do what’s best for Wis­con­sin.”

The DNR is near­ing com­ple­tion on a ma­jor re­or­ga­ni­za­tion aimed at stream­lin­ing its reg­u­la­tory work be­cause of­fi­cials say with fewer em­ploy­ees, the DNR must be re­tooled to carry out its du­ties.

But en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists say they are wor­ried the agency will fur­ther de-em­pha­size en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.

Ear­lier this year, the agency said em­ploy­ment had dropped 15% since 1995. The DNR’s head count stood at 2,641, in­clud­ing va­can­cies. There were then 365 va­cant po­si­tions and 90 were in the process of be­ing filled.

The DNR’s Sav­a­gian said in a state­ment all en­vi­ron­men­tal en­force­ment po­si­tions in the agency have been filled, and an ad­di­tional en­force­ment po­si­tion and seven in­ves­ti­ga­tors are in the process of be­ing hired.

Source: Wis­con­sin Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion Jour­nal Sen­tinel

WIS­CON­SIN DEPART­MENT OF NAT­U­RAL RE­SOURCES

The DNR is­sued vi­o­la­tion no­tices in 2014 against the op­er­a­tors of a Dane County ma­nure di­gester linked to sig­nif­i­cant ma­nure spills Fines as­sessed by the state for such of­fenses are down dras­ti­cally.

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