State water pollution enforcement faltering
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   
Friday, 19 November 2004 14:37

In a new report, an environmental watchdog group found lax enforcement of state water permits that in some cases has allowed polluters to run up hundreds of violations without paying penalties.

Traditionally, few pollution cases in Wisconsin are referred for prosecution. But the number of those that went to the state Justice Department fell from 35 to 17 - 51% - between 1997 and 2002, a report by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group Foundation shows.

The size of the fines declined as well. The average penalty fell from $65,000 in 1997 to $11,400 in 2002, the report shows.

The findings by the group, known as WISPIRG, come from an analysis of state and federal records of companies that receive permits to legally discharge pollutants in Wisconsin waterways.

Jennifer Giegerich, state director of WISPIRG, said the group is troubled by the agency's enforcement posture because it means that pollution is going into waterways that shouldn't.

Also, not penalizing polluters creates little incentive for others to clean up their act, she said.

Between January 1999 and May 2003, the group found instances where companies and other entities had hundreds of violations of their water permits. That means more pollution was entering public waters than allowed by law.

In those cases, no enforcement action was taken.

St. Croix Tribal Fisheries in Danbury in Burnett County ran up 569 violations, according to the report. Thiel Cheese & Ingredients of Hilbert in Calumet County had 277 violations. Badger Army Ammunition plant in Sauk County had 161 violations.

Also, Elkhorn's municipal water treatment plant had 158 violations. A dairy processing plant in Alma Center in Jackson County owned by Foremost Farms USA had 65 violations. And Alliant Energy's Columbia power plant on the Wisconsin River had 58 violations.

WISPIRG found 50 facilities that had 10 or more violations over the period. The tribal fisheries and Badger Ammunition had 550 violations over 13 months.

'Customer friendly'

A DNR official acknowledged that the agency had not been as aggressive with polluters as it should have been during that period.

But Duane Schuettpelz, director of wastewater permits and pretreatment for the DNR, also stressed that violations can pile up quickly if a facility is regulated for many pollutants and tests are taken on a daily basis.

But, he said, "people had become complacent. Some of our people had been in the same program for a long, long time."

Some employees had grown too close to people they regulated, he said. At the same time, the agency was trying to become more "customer friendly - we were going to work with our regulated community to solve problems," Schuettpelz said.

"While the message was sent out that we were not going to sacrifice our enforcement standards, a lot of people interpreted that as 'customer friendly.' "

Schuettpelz said the DNR has since changed its approach. The agency has implemented a new tracking system for permits that makes it harder for violations to go unnoticed or be ignored, and it has written a new enforcement handbook to provide clearer guidelines to personnel.

While exact numbers were not available on Thursday, since 2000, the number of water pollution cases referred by the DNR to the Justice Department has increased, said Tom Dawson, an assistant attorney general.

Tough standards

St. Croix's operations manager, Dave LaBomascus, said the DNR's standards were "almost impossible to meet." Wastewater from its fish farm was cleaned and then dumped into a stream that ultimately flowed about two miles to the St. Croix River.

Because the St. Croix is designated as an "outstanding" river, water quality standards are far higher than in most other rivers in the state. The plant shut down this fall until a new technology is implemented, LaBomascus said.

Badger Army Ammunition, which is no longer operating, had a sewage treatment system that was built in the 1940s and had not been updated since the 1970s. The U.S. Army, which owned the facility, did not want to spend money on a new treatment facility for a shuttered facility, said Joan Kenney, installation director.

"All of this is something that the DNR understands," she said.

Elkhorn's municipal water plant violated limits for chlorides when the DNR raised standards. The chlorides were used to soften Elkhorn's water, and the byproduct of that softening process was dumped into a storm drain and flowed into Delavan Lake.

The city now flushes the polluted water into the sewer, said Terry Weter, director of public works.

Foremost Farm made modifications to its Alma Center plant in 2002 to reduce emissions that lower oxygen levels in water and is no longer violating the law, the company said.

Alliant Energy spokesman Scott Smith said the utility began meeting with the DNR shortly after violations began occurring in 2003 because of an antiquated septic system. It was only later that year that an advocacy group filed a suit, which ultimately ended in a settlement. The utility agreed to pay $150,000 in penalties.

Thiel Cheese did not respond when contacted by the Journal Sentinel.

In other analyses, WISPIRG found that Wisconsin legally discharged 3 million pounds of toxic pollutants into Wisconsin waterways in 2002 - the last year statistics are available. Wisconsin's pollution was more than Michigan and Minnesota combined.

In the same year, Michigan, with a more industrialized economy, discharged 832,292 pounds of toxic pollutants, according to the toxics release inventory compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Minnesota emitted 1.3 million pounds.

It was unclear why Wisconsin would top Minnesota and Michigan, but possible explanations ranged from the role of Wisconsin's paper and dairy processing industries to the manner in which data are tabulated by the government.

Water pollution is not spread evenly across the state. In 2002, the Wisconsin River by far received the largest volume of toxic discharges - nearly 2 million pounds - followed by Honey Creek in Walworth County and the Lower Fox River in northeastern Wisconsin, EPA figures compiled by WISPIRG show.

Giegerich said her organization is worried about these legal discharges because they compound problems already affecting state waterways.

Schuettpelz said that legal dumping of pollutants must be put in context. When companies and facilities receive permits to discharge pollutants, the DNR sets those limits so they do not harm Wisconsin waters.

Most damage to Wisconsin waters today comes from old pollution such as contaminated sediment, runoff pollution and mercury pollution from utility smokestacks, he said.

From an industry perspective, the paper industry is the largest polluter. Six of the top 10 facilities discharging toxic chemicals into state waters were from the paper industry.

"There is no question that our industry has an impact on the environment," said Patrick J. Schillinger of the Wisconsin Paper Council.

But paper companies are cutting the volume of pollutants released into water. While Wisconsin paper companies have increased paper production the last nine years, the volume of pollutants has fallen, he said.

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