Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on Thursday defended Evers’ budget proposals for cleaning up contaminated drinking water.
“We need to address the source or sources of well contamination,” DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole told members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
During the agency budget briefing Thursday, Republicans took jabs at Evers and environmentalism, but there were few if any direct rebukes of the proposed $70 million in spending the governor has proposed while declaring 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water.”
Evers took office in January after nearly a decade of relaxed environmental regulations under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Some conservationists and GOP lawmakers have said that heightened public concerns about contaminated drinking water around the state — from toxic lead to farm pollutants and synthetic chemicals linked to serious health hazards — could drive members of the Legislature’s Republican majority to accept some of Evers’ budget proposals.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, took issue with Evers proposing to spend $40 million to help remove pipes that leach toxic lead into drinking water, but only $2 million to provide drinking water to rural residents whose groundwater has been ruined by agricultural pollutants.
Evers is also calling for more than $18 million to prevent pollution of rural water supplies. When Cole asked Loudenbeck if she wanted more spending to compensate people with poisoned wells, she said she didn’t.
“I just want rural Wisconsin to know Gov. Evers’ year of water provides $2 million to replace wells (compared to $40 million to remove lead pipes),” Loudenbeck said.
Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, urged Cole and conservationists to go after Milwaukee because it dumps sewage into Lake Michigan when heavy rains overwhelm its sewage system.
Cole pointed out that the city had been fined, and had built a costly storage system that had reduced sewage releases.
Asked if he would continue the policy of Walker’s DNR chief, Cathy Stepp, of encouraging department employees to be friendly to businesses, hunters and other members of the public who must interact with the DNR to obtain permits and licenses, Cole said emphatically that he was insisting on taking a customer-friendly approach to an even higher level — and that he considered hospitality industry experience to be a plus in job applicants.
Cole added that he wanted DNR employees to speak to the public the way they would like to be spoken to, even when delivering unwanted information about environmental regulations that must be followed.
Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, expressed concern about drinking water wells in his district that are contaminated by a group of highly toxic synthetic chemicals commonly known by the acronym PFAS. Cole assured him the DNR was studying approaches to regulating the compounds.
Evers budget includes proposals to:
- Allocate $150,000 to create a strategy for finding out where water has been contaminated by PFAS, and $50,000 to survey emergency responders who may have used PFAS-based firefighting foam;
- Restore to the research bureau five scientists, including two who would investigate PFAS;
- Increase fees on large animal feedlots and boost DNR staff assigned to enforce pollution regulations at the sites;
- Extend the life of a program that acquires land and facilities for outdoor recreation;
- Increase funding for state parks;
- Initiate automatic renewals of hunting and fishing licenses;
- Allow condemnation of land for use as state recreational trails;
- Boost several programs aimed at protecting drinking water, lakes and streams from contamination.