Scott Walker

Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, speaks to an overflow crowd from the back of a pickup truck outside Joey's Diner, on July 16, in Amherst, N.H.

Gov. Scott Walker wants to all but eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and place each state in charge of controlling air and water pollution within its borders if he is elected president, he told a conservative newspaper.

“I’m all for a sustainable environment, but you have to balance it with a sustainable economy, and I think in our state we’ve shown you can do that hand in hand,” Walker told the Washington Examiner in an article published Monday. “I think states can do it all across America much better than the federal government.”

Critics said without the EPA there would be a “race to the bottom” among politicians in states competing for business investment with fewer safeguards in one state against pollution flowing through the air or water to another state.

“You don’t need a college degree to know that air and water pollution do not respect state boundaries,” said Daniel J. Weiss, a League of Conservation Voters spokesman in Washington. “Wisconsin would be virtually helpless to protect its citizens from pollution from other states.”

Weiss said he hadn’t seen another 2016 presidential candidate make a similar proposal.

Waiting on details

Conservatives said they haven’t seen details of Walker’s plan, but they said they assumed federal clean air and clean water laws would remain in place and that states would enforce them adequately, but with greater understanding of local needs.

“The EPA’s one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work,” said Eric Bott, Wisconsin director for Americans for Prosperity, which promotes lower taxes and less government. He also is former environmental director for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s business lobby.

WMC vice president Scott Manley said he believed Walker intended for EPA to retain authority to prevent pollution from one state from harming residents of another.

In the Examiner article, Walker said the EPA would become an “umbrella” agency for state environmental agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources. The EPA would be “limited to mediating interstate conflicts over, say, where a body of water or a piece of land goes through multiple states. Other than that, I’d leave those requirements and those responsibilities to the state government, where the people making those decisions have to live with them.”

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Walker’s campaign, didn’t respond to questions from the State Journal about the governor’s comments.

Walker’s DNR has come under fire from the EPA several times for what it called shortcomings in its efforts to protect air and water quality since he took office in 2011.

Walker’s latest budget continues a trend of reducing DNR staffing. The agency, headed by Walker appointees, is proposing to permanently expand a list of activities that don’t require environmental analysis, including air pollution permits, decisions affecting factory farms and dam repairs.

State DNR streamlined

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The aim is to streamline the agency and save money by exempting “minor actions” from review, but environmental groups say the moves could cause long-lasting harm to the environment and public health. The Natural Resources Board, a citizens panel which Walker sought to eliminate, is to consider the administrative rule change next month.

Some of the changes were made temporarily through emergency rules over the last year, demonstrating how quickly the DNR can move to ease regulations on business, said Sarah Williams, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates. But the agency has needed prodding, sometimes by the EPA, to tighten pollution limits.

EPA finds DNR wanting

In August, the EPA issued a “finding of failure” and warned that it would impose rules for limiting fine particles spewed from smokestacks in Wisconsin if the state didn’t submit long-overdue plans for ensuring adequate controls on the emissions, which are linked to respiratory illness.

The limits are designed to prevent significant degradation of air quality in areas that don’t have serious pollution problems.

Patrick Stevens, administrator for the DNR’s air, waste and remediation division, said at the time that it was not the first time Wisconsin had been the subject of a finding of failure from the EPA.

A spokeswoman for the federal air program in the EPA’s Chicago office said it is relatively common for the agency to issue such findings to states and Wisconsin is on track to meet an extended deadline about one year from now.

Critics of Walker’s DNR have said that the agency has shifted emphasis toward quickly providing emission permits to businesses and away from enforcement against polluters and scientific study of emerging problems.

In December, nearly five years after the federal government set new standards for protecting public health from short-term spikes in air pollution levels, Wisconsin hadn’t made the rules mandatory for all polluters. Stevens said it was because the DNR hadn’t had enough time to consult with businesses about the economic impact of change.

Two environmental groups sued in Dane County Circuit Court, and the DNR agreed to deadlines for setting rules for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other emissions, which are linked to acid rain, climate change and potentially life-threatening respiratory diseases, said Elizabeth Wheeler, who represented Madison-based Clean Wisconsin.

In 2011, the EPA put the state DNR on notice that its waste water pollution permit program was riddled with 75 “apparent omissions and deviations” from federal law. The list of deficiencies included both long-standing practices and those initiated by Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“Wisconsin has proposed changes or provided clarifications to address approximately 40 of the 75 issues,” EPA Chicago office spokeswoman Phillippa Cannon said in an email Monday.

In February, the Gogebic Taconite mining company pointed at the EPA when it abandoned a huge project in northern Wisconsin, while acknowledging the agency hadn’t been an obstacle in the two years it did groundwork after Walker and the state Legislature loosened environmental protections to entice the company.

DNR spokeswoman Jennifer Sereno said in an emailed statement that the agency couldn’t immediately comment on issues raised by Walker’s statement, but she said the DNR is committed to protecting and managing natural resources “in ways that support the economy and well-being of our citizens.”

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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