Environmental Inspections Drop in Walker's First Year
[excerpted from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]
Environmental inspections by the state Department of Natural Resources dropped sharply during the first year of Gov. Scott Walker's administration.
Inspections declined in most categories that affect air and water quality, and they mirrored a previously reported decrease in 2011 enforcement cases, according to DNR records.
Inspections are a critical component of environmental enforcement by laying the groundwork for a possible referral to authorities for legal action - or more frequently, by catching problems early and getting polluters back into compliance.
Former DNR Secretary George Meyer called the drop in inspections "very dramatic" and said a vigorous enforcement system breeds good compliance and starts with inspections or citizens calling up to alert regulators about problems.
"If you don't have that, then things begin to slide," said Meyer, who was appointed secretary by former Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.
Environmental and conservation advocates say that the decline in inspections and enforcement cases raises questions over whether the DNR is paying less attention to environmental regulation since Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office and brought on new DNR leadership.
DNR officials, in turn, attribute fewer enforcement actions to a lack of manpower and a greater willingness to work with parties than the previous administration, while still recommending enforcement cases when necessary.
With inspections, however, Deputy DNR Secretary Matt Moroney laid the blame squarely on a shortage of employees, which he said the agency is trying to address. Vacancies became more acute during the tumultuous early months of the Walker administration when workers retired, people changed jobs within the agency and vacancies jumped, he said.
"We take environmental compliance very seriously," Moroney said. "It's part of the responsibility we have as a department. But it takes bodies."
DNR administrators say they are meeting inspection requirements with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But the EPA said that last year it found problems - incomplete inspection reports, for example - in its review of the DNR.
EPA spokeswoman Phillippa Cannon said in a statement: "EPA raised concerns about Wisconsin's enforcement performance, including its inspection program, in the Nov. 1, 2011, state review framework report. The state has identified actions it will take to improve its performance . . . In addition, EPA recently negotiated and signed a performance partnership agreement with Wisconsin to determine compliance and enforcement priorities and set a framework for state inspections and casework."
DNR inspectors review records from companies and municipalities and perform site visits by inspecting sources of pollution as varied as industrial smokestacks to manure storage on dairy farms.
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%.
The number of inspections of wastewater facilities, such as sewage treatment plants, rose 27% from 2010 to 2011, records show.
Figures for public water drinking systems in 2011 were not available, according to the DNR.
Much of the inspection and enforcement data was initially provided by the DNR to Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, a Madison-based public-interest law firm. Wright said she wanted to see if inspection and enforcement activity had changed since Walker was elected governor.
The Journal Sentinel made its own request, asked for other data and analyzed the information independently.
"There's been a drop in everything, and it's very concerning," said Wright, an attorney and former DNR employee who administered a land-grant program during the Doyle administration.
Meyer said his sense is that environmental enforcement has taken a back seat under DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and Moroney, but he thinks federal regulators will force the DNR to make some improvements.
"The EPA is very hesitant to make critical comments - it's another strong signal that something is wrong," said Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
One of Wright's biggest worries is potential manure contamination of groundwater from big dairy farms and other large livestock operations known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
In Wisconsin, a dairy farm qualifies as a CAFO if it has 700 dairy cows or more.
"There seems to be little monitoring, and when there are complaints by citizens, there seems to be very little follow-up," Wright said. "That really puts the public at risk."
Thomas Bauman, manure runoff management coordinator with the DNR, said the agency lost a couple of key staff in northeastern Wisconsin, where there is a large number of CAFOs.
Bauman said he believes the state is meeting the EPA's expectations for inspecting large farms. He also said the DNR has started a new program of inspecting how manure is spread on fields - a traditional source of water or groundwater pollution.
Other administrators said that the weak economy has cut into construction activity, slowing inspections at building sites .
New personnel will help, the DNR says. Another administrator, Michael Lemcke, said that he has been able to add about 15 employees for wastewater regulation.
"That's huge," he said. "We're not going back to the glory years."
Wright said she doesn't believe the DNR can blame the drop in inspections on a shortage of staff.
"That's bunk," Wright said. "It's not a relevant argument. Even if staffing is down, this is public health we are talking about - the health of future generations. They need to redirect resources."
According to job data provided to the Journal Sentinel by the DNR, last year's drop in inspections fell more than the decline in actual number of DNR employees.
The head count at the DNR dropped 4% from 2010 to 2011, DNR figures show.
A recent high point in employment at the agency was 2008. From 2008 to 2011, the number of employees at the DNR fell from 2,526 to 2,257 - a decline of 11%.
But another telling measure is in staff vacancies, which have mushroomed in recent years, beginning with job freezes that began when Democrat Jim Doyle was governor.
In 2010, there were 356 DNR vacancies. It jumped 32% to 471 in 2011, DNR figures show. It's the vacancy rate that is creating problems for inspections and enforcement, said Moroney, former executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association.
The DNR is in the process of hiring or has hired for 350 positions, he said.
"Once we are full-staffed, I think people will say, hey, it's working," he said.