Participants in the state’s voluntary environmental compliance audit program would have more time to correct violations under a new Republican-backed bill.

Assembly Bill 264 also instructs the state Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Justice to consider whether a violator is a small business that has committed a minor violation before pursuing enforcement in court.

The bill, introduced Monday by Rep. Andre Jacque, of DePere, would extend the current 90-day deadline for correcting violations found through the DNR environmental compliance audit program.

Violators would be allowed 180 days for most violations, and would be allowed 360 days if modification of pollution prevention equipment is required.

The bill also would eliminate the current legal requirements that businesses notify the DNR at least 30 days before beginning a compliance audit, and that the public be notified and be allowed to comment on timetables for bringing a business into compliance.

Jacque said the bill brings the state self-compliance program in line with a similar U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program with the goal of encouraging more companies to participate. The EPA program has a 180-day correction time period and no requirement to notify the agency before an audit begins.

“Currently the state program is, as I understand it, woefully underutilized compared with the federal process,” Jacque said. “This is going to make the state program more usable.”

Jacque noted the DNR’s Small Business Environmental Council, composed of both Republican and Democratic appointees, unanimously supported the bill draft. However, no Democrats were listed as co-sponsors of the bill.

Jacque said lifting the public reporting and comment period requirement would encourage more participation.

“This is something that is voluntarily being disclosed to the department,” Jacque said. “A Democratic appointee to the committee said if we kept that provision that we would be publicly shaming the people that are proactively seeking to correct problems.”

Under existing state law, a business can reduce its liability for violations of environmental standards by enrolling in the environmental compliance audit program, voluntarily auditing its own performances, reporting results and correcting violations.

The law contains provisions that prevent use of the program to deflect penalties for known or serious violations. The program was created in 2004. The DNR received two compliance reports identifying five potential violations in the past two years and three reports identifying 37 potential violations in the prior two years.

Since voters gave Republicans control of state government in 2011, the DNR and the Justice Department have sought penalties from polluters less frequently and the fine amounts have gotten smaller.

Fines paid by Wisconsin polluters fell to a 30-year low in 2015. 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.

Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said he’s skeptical of the intent of the bill given the Walker administration’s record on pollution enforcement.

“I thought it was pretty flexible when it was implemented,” Miller said. “This is a pretty unnecessary extension of that flexibility.”

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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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