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Fines assessed to companies that pollute Wisconsin air and water dropped sharply in 2016. 

Reports of environmental violations rose in 2016, but the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sought fewer financial penalties for polluters than in any year since 2011.

Court-enforced fines have become less frequent and less severe since Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011 and appointed home builder Cathy Stepp to head the DNR saying he “wanted someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality.”

Last year, the DNR sent 25 violations to state attorneys for court action. That’s one more than in 2011 when a large number of retirements and job vacancies contributed to deficiencies in water pollution enforcement. More positions were filled for several years, but vacancies began to climb again in 2015.

An average of more than 60 environmental violations per year were referred to the state Department of Justice for court action in 2009 and 2010, the last two years of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, according to data provided by the DNR.

Former DNR secretaries said financial penalties for the worst polluters are an important deterrent, but current department officials say they have sought fewer fines because they have placed emphasis on talking to violators to achieve quick corrections of illegal pollution.

By gaining swift voluntary compliance with the law, the department stops pollution before it poses significant harm to public health or the environment, DNR spokesman Jim Dick said.

In recent years, an increase in fully trained enforcement specialists has helped the DNR accomplish this goal, Dick said.

The DNR transferred an additional employee into environmental enforcement in September to increase its authorized staffing in that area to 14 full-time equivalent workers, Dick said. When job vacancies are taken into account, enforcement staffing ranged from a low of 10 in 2014 to a high of 13 in 2015 and this year.

The department accepted 310 cases for initial investigation and issued 335 notices of violation in 2016. Both numbers are very close to the average for the last eight years.

The department held 306 enforcement conferences to discuss violations with polluters and seek agreements on preventing pollution and conducting environmental cleanups. The number of conferences was higher than the eight-year average of 248.

The enforcement conferences typically are the last step before the DNR seeks financial penalties. In some cases, several conferences are held if a polluter resists making improvements or when new violations are discovered.

Matt Frank, who was DNR secretary from 2007 through 2010, said the department has always talked with polluters to get them to comply with the law, but for repeat offenders and other serious cases there were also fines aimed at deterring future offenses.

“These latest numbers show a continued lack of emphasis on enforcement,” Frank said. “A good oversight program certainly works with business to get them in compliance but also when necessary refers them for enforcement. Deterrence is an important part of a good environmental enforcement program.”

Stepp responded by saying she has brought customer-friendly private-sector principles to the DNR so that instead of fearing the department, business operators view it as “a safe space” where they can obtain advice that helps them comply with regulations and avoid environmental violations.

George Meyer, who was DNR secretary from 1993 to 2001, said the agency has always welcomed businesses seeking information and when polluters voluntarily reported violations it counted in their favor in decisions on whether to seek financial penalties and how much to seek.

A small percentage of businesses violate their air, water or hazardous materials pollution permits, but those that do so in a serious way should pay a penalty to prevent future incidents, said Meyer, who is now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

When the state penalizes a polluter, officials can face criticism from business interests, Meyer said.

“I don’t believe that penalties for the worst polluters are something this agency and this administration wants to undertake,” Meyer said.

Meyer said the problem is evident in the declining financial penalties the Justice Department has obtained, and it was compounded in a recent case where Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel sought no financial penalties from the 3M Co. in a case where the company repeatedly violated air pollution standards.

A Schimel spokesman has said the department was proud of the court settlement reached in November that requires 3M Co. to spend an estimated $665,000 by August 2018 on improvements to pollution control equipment at two plants in Wausau.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

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