Dismayed by the DNR
Written by The Capital Times   
Saturday, 18 June 2005 18:45
DNR staffer Christopher Carlson Christopher Carlson came to work for the Department of Natural Resources 15 years ago, brimming with idealism and enthusiasm about protecting the state's water from pollution.

On May 31, the hydrogeologist left the agency for a job in Washington, D.C., disillusioned by what he says is the lessening of environmental protections forced on the department by the governor and the Legislature through budget cuts and a business-first philosophy.

"The DNR was a radically different place when I started. There was an esprit de corps. There was spirit and enthusiasm about serving a greater good - trying to protect ground water and maintain proper waste management. It is so far from that now. There is not a lot of positiveness," Carlson said.

"I made the decision to leave. I'm tagging with my wife. She found another position and they offered me a temporary position. With all the other things going on in my program, how can you not take advantage of that opportunity?"

The DNR has suffered budget cuts from a Republican-controlled Legislature as well as regulation streamlining actions supported by the Democratic governor and the Legislature that some say place the state's water and air quality in danger.

Environmentalists have been dismayed by DNR actions such as issuing a water permit for two coal-fired power plants planned near Racine that Illinois officials say will degrade Lake Michigan, allowing landfills to hold twice as much garbage, and going along with massive regulation reductions and streamlining required under the Job Creation Act and other legislation.

DNR Secretary Scott Hassett and Gov. Jim Doyle defend their environmental record (see related story on Page 4A). They say that the decisions made during this administration will not hurt the state's natural resources. But some DNR staffers think otherwise.

"Deputy secretaries and division administrators are political appointments who have to go along with what Doyle wants. Their jobs are on the line," said Mike Held, a database administrator at the DNR. "If they were to say the Job Creation Act was damaging to the environment, they would be looking for a job. That is one of the consequences of the governor appointing a secretary."

Carlson also put some blame on the governor.

"There is more direct oversight from the governor's office on the DNR than ever before. This governor does not want anybody doing anything without his knowledge. The DNR is more politicized than it has ever been," Carlson agreed.

Legislature's role:

"The Job Creation Act was accepted at staff level only because there was no alternative. The Legislature and the governor said, 'You're stifling economic growth and we're going to stop you from doing that. I know people in other programs were very upset,' " Carlson said.

"We devoted energy to try to minimize the damage. Then apparently members of the Legislature considered that didn't go far enough and wanted to pile on. All the Legislature cares about is (applicants) getting permits. I don't know anyone here who verbalized support for streamlining. The air program clearly had a problem in not processing the permits, and something had to change. The department was making strides in improving the process, but it took too long; political momentum had been created."

Aspects of the environment will not be protected adequately, he said, and that plays a big role in hurting morale at the DNR.

"Being told by the Legislature not to be as proactive - for folks who got into this business with goals, that's tough to take. I would say the secretary has never presented a message that we should do anything but the highest level of work. But the undertone of the budget suggests you can't do that," Carlson said.

"If a whole lot of people have to do two people's work, you can't accomplish that. With the level of staffing lost, you can't do that. I don't argue that we can't be more efficient, but we can't make up for the level of cuts and meet the same expectations of the public."

Doyle's denial:

"I don't have any knowledge of who was for or against Job Creation at any level in the DNR," Doyle said.

"I know we had an enormously cooperative agency in really embracing the idea that we would speed up this permit process, that we were going to have high standards. The DNR has spent a lot of its time (in the past) having to fend off arguments about how it operates. My view is that we should spend time on the quality of the environment and not spend all the time on what their process is."

Doyle noted the rather laid-back demeanor of the nice-guy secretary he named to head the department.

"I don't think Scott Hassett is a big military top-down type of guy," Doyle said.

"The management team he has put there - Bill Smith, everybody - people have acknowledged this is an extraordinarily qualified team. I have full confidence that with Scott Hassett and the leadership team, there has been an open and extremely responsive administration. I get comments from all over Wisconsin that they haven't seen this kind of openness in the DNR for a long time - people responding to them, people talking to them."

Doyle emphasized that when he took office in January 2003 there was a two-year delay in issuing air pollution control permits, and complaints were coming in from all over the state about the delays, which often resulted in continuing pollution because more efficient equipment could have been installed under the permits.

Hassett said that the governor's office, as well as the Natural Resources Board, must be involved in setting department policy.

"The governor has to authorize lawsuits versus the EPA, and with prepared legislation they want our input," Hassett said.

"I think staff is certainly disappointed when the Legislature undoes what they do. I think even more troubling to staff and to me is when legislators try us by anecdote, with a third-hand story or one from three generations ago. I set up a call line to log in with complaints and compliments. My message is 'give me some specific problems.' "

Environmentalists frequently say that they would rather have the DNR secretary appointed by the Natural Resources Board, as it used to be until the Thompson administration, instead of by the governor.

"Governor Doyle has supported returning to board appointment. The theory is to insulate us from political pressures. I do not get insulated. The Legislature and the governor want to know what's going on, as do the media and environmentalists," Hassett said.

"There are some advantages to being an appointed secretary. I am part of a team and the governor can protect me and the agency."

But are department actions driven by environmental goals or by political goals influenced by special interest businesses?

Job Creation Act:

"I believe the Wisconsin environment is protected under the Job Creation Act," Hassett said. "That was the whole point of that thing. We had to do something to simplify and streamline procedures. We have no evidence of any adverse impact from that legislation."

Doyle said that the legislation has speeded up the DNR's permit process considerably, which he says is a good thing. His budget proposal also includes funding for new information technology at the DNR that will allow more permits to be received and processed online, in a much more efficient way.

Hassett said that under temporary rules, 50 percent of projects no longer needed a permit or received a decision in 30 days or less. "In terms of streamlining, expediting permits, it's been a success," he said.

Spot checks last summer and fall of permit processes showed that regulations are being followed on construction projects near waterways, he added.

"We made site visits to assess how well people were complying with exemptions. Those are projects where (under the Job Creation Act) the applicant requested an exemption determination and we had to reply in 15 days," Hassett said. "They were exempt from needing a permit but they still have to comply with certain administrative code provisions. We found 100 percent compliance."

The department also found more than 75 percent compliance with general and individual permits, with most violations being inadequate construction site erosion control.

"Regardless of what kind of regulatory framework you have, certainly there are some violations," Hassett said. "Typically neighbors on lakes tip us off. We would never have been able to have the resources to go out looking for violations. People get turned in by their neighbors pretty fast on these things."

The department will keep track of long-term cumulative impacts of the Job Creation Act on water quality, he said, but "so far we're doing pretty good."

Todd Ambs, administrator of the DNRs water division, agreed that no water degradation has yet occurred due to the Job Creation Act. "But some folks are concerned, so we are checking and will report to the Natural Resources Board at the end of this year in regard to how the rules could be changed if necessary," he said. "We will keep a close eye on it, but the spot checks gave us some hopeful indications that folks were following regulations pretty well."

Hassett said the Job Creation Act was the result of months of negotiations among the governor's office, the Department of Administration, legislators and interest groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, builders and Realtors. (Environmentalists have complained that they were not part of the process.)

The governor adamantly denied allegations of strict and pervasive oversight of the agency.

However, agency staffers also blame the change in attitude at the DNR on state legislators who have repeatedly criticized the department for what they term obstructionist tendencies and foot-dragging on permits requested by businesses.
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