Fines for polluters in Wisconsin drop 78% in one year, records show
Financial penalties for violations of Wisconsin environmental laws fell sharply in 2015 to their lowest level in at least a decade.
Data released by a conservation organization show forfeitures paid by individuals and companies for violating state law totaled $306,834 last year.
That’s down 78% from nearly $1.4 million paid out in 2014. It’s also the lowest amount paid out for violations dating back to at least 2006, according to data.
The figures are the most recent showing Department of Natural Resources enforcement activity has dropped off under the administration of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who took office in 2011 with a pro-business agenda and a vow to make the DNR more friendly to the private sector.
The statistics show forfeitures collected between 2006 and 2010 under the administration of Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, totaled $15.2 million.
During Walker’s 2011-’15 tenure, it dropped more than half to $6.4 million.
The data were released by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation on Wednesday from public records the organization says it received from an employee in state government. It declined to identify the source.
The DNR said it could not corroborate the figures. Spokesman Andrew Savagian said in an email that “enforcement staff can’t tell from the format if this is our data.” The Department of Justice, which prosecutes cases referred by the DNR, also said it could not immediately vouch for the accuracy of the data.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in February on a drop in enforcement activity in 2015 in several categories. The paper reported the number of cases the agency accepted; the number of notices of violation; and the number of referrals to the Department of Justice all fell in 2015 compared to the average between 2010 and 2014.
The paper has previously reported enforcement drops in other years of the Walker administration.
Earlier this year, Walker said declining enforcement was a good sign because it showed the DNR has been working upfront with the public to avoid problems.
“My goal is to have no citations, because when an agency issues a citation, that means something went wrong,” Walker told reporters.
According to data from the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, there were no financial penalties in 2015 that involved confined animal feeding operations, which are large-scale farms also known as CAFOs that have come under fire from environmentalists.
There were also no forfeitures in categories covering hazardous waste and public water supplies, according to the group.
Financial penalties for wastewater management, which involve permits to municipalities and factories that treat water before releasing it to public waterways, fell from a 10-year average of $455,407 to $12,057 last year.
“I don’t have the answer to why it has fallen, but it’s too dramatic,” George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said of the forfeiture totals.
Meyer headed up the DNR under former Govs. Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum, both Republicans, and previously served as enforcement administrator at the agency.
In Meyer’s view, the possible explanations are: fewer on-site inspections by the DNR; a drop in the number of prosecutable cases referred to the Justice Department; or a reduced number of prosecutions by the Justice Department.
Meyer said a trend of fewer sanctions makes it unfair for the majority of people and businesses that follow the law.
“Ninety-five to 99% of the companies out there are doing an outstanding job with compliance,” Meyer said. “These are the 5% who are not complying with the law. They’re cutting corners.
“It’s good business to have an effective deterrent.”
The DNR said in an email that the goal of the agency is to “increase compliance and reduce the need for enforcement actions. DNR and DOJ continue to take environmental enforcement seriously and are committed to addressing violations.”
The agency says it has used a “stepped enforcement” for decades to resolve cases at the lowest level of penalty for the circumstance.
Justice Department spokesman Johnny Koremenos said in a statement:
“Attorney General Schimel takes his prosecutorial role seriously and ensures all referrals received by the Wisconsin Department of Justice from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are thoroughly reviewed and DOJ attorneys work diligently to do what’s best for Wisconsin.”
The DNR is nearing completion on a major reorganization aimed at streamlining its regulatory work because officials say with fewer employees, the DNR must be retooled to carry out its duties.
But environmentalists say they are worried the agency will further de-emphasize environmental protection.
Earlier this year, the agency said employment had dropped 15% since 1995. The DNR’s head count stood at 2,641, including vacancies. There were then 365 vacant positions and 90 were in the process of being filled.
The DNR’s Savagian said in a statement all environmental enforcement positions in the agency have been filled, and an additional enforcement position and seven investigators are in the process of being hired.