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Great Lakes Article:

Report accuses DNR of lax pollution control


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 for prosecution.

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 action.

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 competitive disadvantage.

"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 compliant.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Jan. 29, 2002.

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