The state Department of Justice plans to ramp up enforcement of environmental laws by undergoing a restructuring.
The move, Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said, is meant as a departure from the less assertive approach toward environmental regulation taken by former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel.
“It seems clear to me enforcing environmental protections was not a priority (under Schimel),” Kaul told the Wisconsin State Journal. “This is a step towards rebuilding our efforts to protect consumers and protect our natural resources.”
The DOJ is combining two internal units — the consumer protection unit, which investigates deceptive business practices — and the environmental protection unit, which investigates violations of the state’s environmental laws in cases typically referred by the Department of Natural Resources. The new combined unit will be called the public protection unit and will include attorneys from each of the former units.
The restructuring means they’ll be able to hire an additional attorney to prosecute environmental laws because the merger of the two units means they won’t need two unit directors.
The anticipated addition of a lawyer means six attorneys will be assigned to work on environmental cases, the same as in 2015 but significantly fewer than about a decade ago, likely because of the diminished number of pollution cases the DNR refers for prosecution. In 2008, 10 attorneys were assigned to environmental cases.
During most of the 1990s, the environmental protection unit had 12 lawyers, but that number fell to 10 while the late Peg Lautenschlager, Kaul’s mother, was attorney general from 2003 to 2006.
The decline in prosecutorial muscle, particularly after 2009, meant total fines against polluters fell as well. In 2015, fines levied fell to below $1 million, their lowest point since at least 1994.
That occurred as the number of cases the DNR referred to the DOJ for prosecution dwindled.
The DOJ didn’t immediately make available data on environmental prosecutions or referrals from the DNR.
Kaul didn’t say whether the DOJ plans to hire more than six environmental attorneys for the time being, but said the new structure will allow for attorneys formerly assigned to consumer protection to assist on large environmental cases, and vice-versa, if the need arises. The flexibility will likely allow consumer protection attorneys to provide more effective enforcement, as well.
Thursday’s announcement comes as Kaul is taking a forceful approach toward consumer protection. Kaul earlier this month announced that Wisconsin is one of five states suing OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for damages and to halt alleged deceptive marketing of the widely prescribed opioid painkiller.
The complaint alleges Purdue Pharma and its former president, Richard Sackler, broke state laws by making false and deceptive claims regarding opioids, which the company denies.
On the environmental front, Kaul has withdrawn the state from a lawsuit challenging a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cost-benefit analysis finding the regulation of air pollutants is worth it because the costs of putting into place new regulatory technology wouldn’t substantially boost the cost of electricity.
Kaul also switched the DOJ’s position to side with environmentalists in cases involving high-capacity wells and factory farms.
Kaul said his actions as attorney general show he’s a “watchdog” for Wisconsinites.