Report accuses DNR of lax pollution control
By ANNYSA JOHNSON
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Three decades after the passage of the federal Clean
Water Act, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
has failed to enforce its provisions, turning a blind
eye as municipalities and industry polluted the state's
waterways during the 1990s, an environmental group charged
in a report released Monday.
The DNR dismissed the report as misleading, saying the
agency has a strong record of enforcement and that water
quality has improved in Wisconsin over the past decade.
According to an analysis of DNR records, the Madison-based
Midwest Environmental Advocates alleges, 28% to 46% of
major industrial facilities with discharge permits were
in "significant non-compliance" with their state
pollution permits from 1990 to 1998, as were 31% to 55%
of major municipal facilities.
The group's report, titled "Who is Guarding our
Waters?" says the DNR sent violation notices on average
to just 10% of those facilities between 1990 and 1998,
and referred only 2.5% of them to the Department of Justice
In 1998, the report says, the DNR failed to collect between
$14 million and $248 million in potential penalties from
industrial and municipal sources of water pollution. And
in 2000, it prosecuted only four major facilities for
water pollution violations, bringing in penalties of $212,217.
"Thirty years after the Clean Water Act was created
to protect our waters, Wisconsin's industries and municipalities
are still polluting, and the DNR is not doing enough to
prevent it," said Melissa Scanlan, executive director
Midwest Environmental Advocates and the primary author
of the report.
The report calls for a legislative audit and reforms
that include increasing the DNR's enforcement budget and
authorizing the attorney general to initiate enforcement
Susan Sylvester, administrator of the DNR's water division
in Madison, criticized the report, saying it "doesn't
represent the true picture."
Sylvester said 90% of the cases cited were resolved administratively
before a notice of violation was issued. She called the
"stepped enforcement" process, as it's known,
faster and more efficient than taking polluters to court.
Scanlan "makes the assumption that every judge is
going to impose significant fines, and that's just not
the case," Sylvester said.
The absence of significant fines, Scanlan said, discourages
polluters from making changes that would benefit the environment,
putting companies that do invest in improvements at a
"Right now, the state is subsidizing pollution by
not having the polluters pay," Scanlan said.
Sylvester criticized the report for focusing on larger
facilities, saying they represent just a fraction of the
discharge sources. She also said the DNR has shifted its
focus to smaller facilities because they tend to be less
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Jan. 29,