Legislators and environmental advocates Wednesday pushed for the state Department of Natural Resources to pay for well tests for as many as 40 residents who might have been affected by the excessive spreading of human wastes on fields in Jefferson County.
"If our wells are contaminated, then what do we do? How do we sell our homes?" asked Francine Langlais, one of the residents who lives near the fields in question.
Langlais was among the residents who spoke at a listening session held Wednesday by Democratic members of the state Legislature's natural resource committees. The session was organized by state Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, after majority Republican members of the committees declined to hold a formal hearing on the matter.
At issue is the DNR's handling of an enforcement case against Oconomowoc waste hauler Richard Herr. Herr was cited for excessive spreading of human wastes on Jefferson County fields in 2009 as well as keeping inaccurate records and not conducting required soil tests. Despite a recommendation from the DNR's enforcement staff that the case be referred to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution, Scott Gunderson, a politically appointed executive assistant, decided to issue five citations and levy a minimum fine against Herr. Gunderson, a former state representative, later said he forgot that he had received $750 in campaign contributions from Herr.
Although the DNR has so far refused to consider paying for testing of wells in the area, Hulsey said Wednesday that the agency has the authority to require a polluter to pay for well testing when "the protection of public health necessitates immediate action." He said he has sent a letter to the agency requesting such action.
Officials with the DNR did not respond to requests for comment on the possibility of such testing.
Also on Wednesday, Kim Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, appeared before the Natural Resources Board to ask for an internal agency review of its enforcement policies and changes in those policies that would prevent politics from entering into enforcement decisions. The board sets policy for the DNR.
"I call on the board to create clear policies that prevent diverting professional staff recommendations to special interest favors," Wright said. "The policies should protect professional staff from pressures to change decisions that are based in science and law."
Cathy Stepp, DNR secretary, has indicated previously that a policy change regarding potential conflicts of interest by administrators will be addressed in a review of agency enforcement policies that began prior to the Herr case becoming public.
Dave Clausen, chairman of the Natural Resources Board, said he expects the board to review any such proposed policy changes to make sure that safeguards are in place.
"I think the department is working internally to tighten up some things," Clausen said. "That administration has said they will address the matter. It's early in the process, but we will continue to look at this."