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Wisconsin residents file petition with EPA over DNR’s failure to comply with Clean Water Act

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE — Human sewage draining into the Menomonee River.

Toxic algae blooms in various lakes, including a dead zone in Green Bay, associated with high levels of phosphorus and other nutrients.

High levels of nitrates in wells and fishing areas along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.

Abnormal amounts of bacteria in bodies of water.

Manure run-off generated by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

Rules that make it too difficult to challenge a wastewater permit.

These are among the problems cited by 16 Wisconsin residents who filed a Petition for Corrective Action with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency October 20 asking the EPA to require the state Department of Natural Resources to issue water pollution permits that are in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Press conferences were held October 20 at the Menomonie Public Library and in Green Bay and Madison to talk about the petition.

75 points

In 2011, the EPA sent a letter to the DNR that outlines 75 points where the state government failed to comply with or does not implement or enforce the Clean Water Act or does not establish the proper legal authority for the DNR.

To date, the DNR has not remedied the problems outlined in the 75 points brought up by the EPA, according to the petition.

In the last four years, the state Legislature has reduced the number of DNR staff and has implemented other changes that make it more difficult for the agency to issue, review or monitor water pollution permits.

According to information from Midwest Environmental Advocates, a non-profit environmental law center that filed the petition with the EPA, “although these deficiencies themselves are troubling enough, the DNR lacks the staff power or funding to remedy them. In response to the EPA’s deficiency letter, the DNR proposed eight packages of rules, addressing upwards of 50 deficiencies, to bring the WPDES (water pollution permits) into compliance with the Clean Water Act. Four years later, the DNR has not comprehensively completed rulemaking to remedy these deficiencies.”

Human sewage

One petitioner who works as the riverkeeper for the Milwaukee Riverkeeper prepared several watershed restoration plans and implementation plans for the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic River watersheds in the Milwaukee area.

During the planning process, a ten-mile stretch of the Menomonee River was found to have bacteria levels about a thousand times higher than portions of the river upstream.

The group coordinated with UW-Milwaukee scientists to test stormwater pipes discharging into the polluted sections of the river and discovered that about half of the stormwater pipes contained human sewage.

Stormwater discharge pipes should primarily carry rain water and snow melt.

According to the petition, “Milwaukee Riverkeeper has tested stormwater pipes since 2008 and continues to find that municipalities are releasing human sewage via the stormwater system without adequate DNR enforcement.”

The petitioner said the DNR has also undermined efforts from the community to hold stormwater violators and other polluters accountable.

In one instance, a developer had clearcut an old-growth forest on more than one acre of land next to the Milwaukee River and was discharging stormwater without a permit.

Community members were working with the developer on a settlement that would have required the developer to restore the area and provide public access to what is described as “an historic fishing access point” when the DNR stepped in and granted an “after the fact” permit.

Dead fish

Another petitioner in Door County is an avid outdoorsman who describes trying to swim or paddle through algae blooms as “paddling through soup.”

The smell from the algae blooms has required him to keep the doors and windows closed at his teaching studio three blocks away from the beach.

The Green Bay dead zone, fueled by nitrogen and phosphorus run-off, also creates an unacceptable odor along with dead fish piling up on the shoreline, according to the petition.

Jim Swanson, a petitioner from Menomonie, also references the smell from the algae blooms on Lake Menomin and Tainter Lake.

“The DNR has had decades to fix the Red Cedar River Watershed in the Menomonie area and ‘has simply avoided working on the problem.’ As (Swanson) sees nutrient pollution and corresponding algal blooms in the Menomonie area and throughout Wisconsin continue to worsen, Jim feels that it is essential the EPA’s involvement is a necessary prerequisite to any meaningful restoration of the water resources of his region of the state.”


Another petitioner who lives in Fond du Lac County is concerned about the DNR’s lack of staff and lack of funding necessary to issue and monitor permits or to enforce permit violations.

The petitioner and a grassroots group spent thousands of dollars on gathering scientific evidence about water quality and the public health impacts of what would become the largest dairy operation in Wisconsin.

On the day of the public hearing, the DNR denied the group’s request for a display table but allowed a display table and a video presentation requested by representatives of the CAFO.

The petitioner has signed onto the petition “to encourage the EPA to remove political influence from the WPDES program and start aggressively requiring the DNR to bring the WPDES program into compliance with the Clean Water Act. (The petitioner) has seen an understaffed DNR focus their limited resources to address CAFO industry requests while simultaneously denying requests made by citizen monitoring groups,” according to the petition.

The petitioner “urged the EPA to recognize the DNR as an understaffed, underfunded and demoralized agency that is in need of restored integrity and ethics.”

Other petitioners also noted that it has become easier for businesses and industries to get what they want from the DNR but that it is more difficult for state residents to voice their concerns and to have those concerns addressed by the DNR.

According to information from MEA, “even with appropriate staff and funding levels, the DNR lacks the legal authority necessary to bring Wisconsin into compliance with the Clean Water Act. For years, courts and legislatures have cut away at the DNR’s power to make and enforce rules. Wisconsin, for instance, imposes greater restrictions on legal review of permits than federal law, violating the Clean Water Act’s mandate that states give their residents the same permit challenge and enforcement opportunities as allowed under federal law.”