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Wisconsin gets an 'F' in water quality
Advocacy group says water policy muddy, but DNR thinks it's doing a good job
By Monique Balas
Green Bay News-Chronicle

A Madison-based public interest group gave Wisconsin got a failing grade in its water pollution enforcement policies, but the agency that enforces those policies thinks it's doing fine.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group released the report, "Clean Water Enforcement Report Card: How Nine States' Regulations Measure Up." It rates a cross-section of states based on how closely their water quality enforcement regulations follow the 1972 Clean Water Act, which set initial pollution control standards for water quality permits.

"One-third of the facilities in the state are in violation of their Clean Water Act permits, but only 4 percent are being prosecuted," said Anthony Pizer, a Clean Water specialist associate with the group.

One reason for the discrepancy is that state law calls for only two options if a facility is in violation: negotiation for penalties or taking the matter to court. Pizer said negotiation often allows the facility to get off the hook too easily because the facility can propose its own penalty, and litigation is usually a lengthy, costly process that might end up being dropped.

A review of Wisconsin's reporting, inspections, assessment of enforcement actions and public accountability categories all received a failing grade in the study.

Pizer blamed heavy facility self-reporting and inconsistent DNR inspections to allow a dangerous level of pollution by into the states' waterways, making them unsafe for fishing and swimming.

"The DNR is the only one between us having clean water and having arsenic, lead, benzene - those are the three big ones - and also zinc, chlorine and formaldehyde," Pizer said.

He said major cuts to the DNR's Water Division have impeded its ability to adequately inspect facilities.

But the agency has not suffered too much, said Todd Ambs, the DNR's water division administrator.

"We're pretty comfortable with where we are," Ambs said. "We have the lowest permit backlog in the Upper Midwest and we handled those pretty efficiently. We've got excellent water quality in the state and made tremendous improvements."

Ambs said the biggest threat to Wisconsin's water quality comes from nonpoint pollution, which comes from agricultural runoff, construction and erosion.

The report's call for more specific monitoring requirements across the board doesn't make sense, because the DNR considers the size and scope of the facility when it determines inspection frequency, said Duane Schuettpelz, chief of the DNR's wastewater permits and pretreatment section.

"The failure they cite is a failure of the statutes to specifically mandate the requirements, but in actuality the department does inspections on a periodic basis," he said. "Like the State Patrol on our roadways, there is not a patrol car at every intersection to determine if we're stopping at every stoplight."

The state is actually progressive in some of its water policy laws, according to Paul Thormodsgard, executive director of the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District.

For one thing, the DNR has made regular annual inspections for the past 20 years, since he has been with the district. Plus, Wisconsin's Compliance Maintenance Annual Report, a rule the agency put in place, serves as an example for municipalities around the country.

"What it tends to do is it informs the DNR regarding the status of municipal wastewater facilities," Thormodsgard said. "It gives in effect an early warning if there are difficulties in compliance."

He said the agency has consistently been thorough in its facility inspection and records review.

"My experience with that is it's always done thoroughly and the letter we get from the DNR just reflects that they take their responsibilities very seriously," Thormodsgard said. "I guess I would acknowledge the DNR is having to balance priorities because of budget issues, but all in all I think they do a pretty good job."

Michigan and Georgia also received overall Fs on their water policies. New Jersey won a "B+", Washington received a C and Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania earned Ds.

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