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Sharp drop in inspections lets Wisconsin polluters off scot-free

Balancing environmental sustainability and commercial development is not easy. In fact, it’s one of the thorniest issues that elected officials face. New development is critical to the state’s economy, but our natural resources are also vital to the economy, as well as our health and quality of life.

Environmental and commercial interests don’t have to be at odds. Development can — and often is — handled in sustainable ways. Still, in cases in which the two interests cannot be reconciled, the environment must be given primary consideration. Development is generally transient (look at Detroit), but our natural resources are impossible to replace. Just think of the thousands of extinctions that have been caused by habitat loss.

Under Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s Republican leadership, the environment has been under constant attack, even though support for sustainability is strongly bipartisan. The moneyed interests, as represented by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, fossil fuel companies and the real-estate industry, have gradually gained the upper hand since Wisconsin came under one-party rule in 2011.

Instead of abiding by the state’s strong environmental protections, which were created with input from evidence-based science, Wisconsin’s ruling majority overturned them. When scientists at the Department of Natural Resources presented inconvenient truths about the effects of industrial projects, such as mines, on our air and water, Walker got rid of the scientists.

Wisconsin’s Republican leadership also has dramatically reduced enforcement of environmental regulations that continue to exist. They simply took the teeth out of regulations they couldn’t eliminate.

Data reported earlier this spring by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation shows the extent to which this has happened. The federation obtained figures tracking forfeitures the state Justice Department collected between 2006 and 2015 for infractions involving air and water pollution, farm animal waste and hazardous waste.

The data showed that fines for environmental violations were the lowest in 2015 for any year since 1986. Last year’s environmental fines also were 86 percent lower than the 10-year average of nearly $2.2 million a year, and 78 percent lower than the nearly $1.4 million fines in 2014.

Even unofficial “warnings” issued to illegal polluters dropped 55 percent in 2015, from an average of 516 notices per year to just 233.

Walker has said that declines in the number of violations and fines are positive signs that the DNR is working with businesses and the public to avoid environmental problems.

But neither George Meyer, a former longtime DNR secretary, or Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, are buying Walker’s spin. They say it’s not possible that actual environmental violations could have dropped 80–90 percent in just one year.

More likely, Meyer says, there are fewer DNR inspections being carried out due to agency staffing and budget cuts, a lack of follow-up by the DNR on violations that it does discover, and reductions in the prosecutions for environmental violations handled by the state Department of Justice.

WLCV says very few polluters pay penalties, even when they’re caught. Instead, they’re getting off scot-free.

WLVC recently put out a statement stressing its commitment to exposing Walker every time his administration fails to enforce a law meant to protect Wisconsinites, and WiG will continue to highlight his failures. That exposure must prompt us to react by putting pressure on the administration and our state representatives to enforce our air, water and public health laws.

Ultimately, the future of our natural resources depends on us.

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