Report finds a decade of environmental neglect in Wisconsin
The Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Boulder Junction includes stands of mature conifers. (Jonathan Kult | Wisconsin DNR)
A new report by Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a nonprofit group whose mission is “to protect Wisconsin’s conservation legacy” by “promoting science-based management of natural resources,” says the state’s efforts to protect natural resources and human health are being paralyzed by special interests and political ideology, resulting in what the group calls a “public health crisis.”
The crisis, say Green Fire’s executive director Fred Clark and legislative liaison Paul Heinen, results from deliberate inaction on drinking water standards and nonpoint pollution of public and private wells.
The paper addresses the collective effects of state legislative actions, court rulings, and political practices that have undermined democratic processes and profoundly changed the way state government in Wisconsin operates.
The report, “Imbalance of Power: How Wisconsin is Failing Citizens in Conserving Natural Resources and Protecting our Environment” can be viewed on the Green Fire website.
It details how legislative actions that began almost immediately after former Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011 and continue to this day have crippled efforts by state agencies to set rules as called for in state statutes.
“We wanted to help tie together the changes that made all these failures not only possible, but, rather, inevitable. We want people to understand this isn’t happening in isolation. It’s all connected,” says Clark, a former state legislator who served during the dramatic citizen uprising against the Walker administration and the Republican majority in the Legislature.
“There’s so much broken in government,” adds Heinen, a former legislative liaison for the Department of Natural Resources. As a result, average citizens have stopped showing up for many government hearings, he says. “It’s all lobbyists,” he adds. “Absolutely there is a plan. It’s run by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. It’s not like a secret or anything. All lobbyists know it.” Clark describes a scenario in which lengthy agency rulemaking can be thwarted at the last minute by a single phone call from a WMC lobbyist to legislative leaders, ordering them to quash a rule.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, a citizens’ group that is supposed to oversee natural resources protection and provide a buffer to political machinations, is in the grip of a majority of members appointed by Walker because one member, Fred Prehn of Wausau, refuses to step down more than a year after his term ended. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, controlled by a conservative majority, ruled that Prehn and other appointees can serve until their replacements are confirmed by the state Senate, which has failed to act on Gov. Tony Evers’ appointees. As of last summer, 127 individual appointees to state boards and commissions made by Evers had not received Senate confirmation, nor had Senate leaders publicly stated their intentions for these appointments.
Meanwhile a public health crisis is arising from the failure to act on new standards for nitrate contamination in susceptible areas and so-called “forever chemicals,” polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in ground water. PFAS, present for years in everything from dental floss to carpeting and firefighting foam, have been linked to an array of human health problems including increased risk of some cancers, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, and fertility and pregnancy complications in women. Nitrate consumption is linked to thyroid disease and several forms of cancer and causes especially acute risks for children and pregnant women. About 90% of nitrates in ground water come from agricultural sources, numerous studies have found.
PFAS have been detected with levels of concern in more than 90 locations across the state. Nitrates have contaminated more than 42,000 private wells, according to the report. In the case of municipal water supplies, costly mitigation measures for nitrates are borne by water users. For others, the contamination has led people to relocate, spend money to redrill wells, bring in bottled water for a clean water supply. “There’s no more important measure of health than clean water,” says Clark.
While the NRB didn’t address PFAS in ground water, it did take action on addressing surface and drinking water concerns. But on drinking water, it ignored Department of Health Services recommendations for a safety standard of 20 parts per trillion and instead adopted a looser, 70 ppt threshold. At the time, it said it was aligning with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) threshold. EPA later said it would seek to set a threshold of 20 ppt. Will Wisconsin comply with the more rigorous standard if that is finalized? “That’s the trillion-dollar question,” says Heinen.
If history is an indicator, that question will be answered by WMC and its allies. “Today, instead of a robust balancing of public interests among stakeholders, a small number of groups representing industry, real estate, and some agricultural interests now exercise a high level of influence over environmental programs, with direct implications for the health and welfare of Wisconsin citizens,” the Green Fire report states. “The decade-long failure to take effective actions to address these issues is affecting health and quality of life and creating a growing financial burden to Wisconsin residents throughout the state.”
Other findings in the report include:
- The Joint Committee on Review of Administration Rules in the Wisconsin Legislature holds an extraordinarily high level of oversight and control over the fate of environmental and conservation programs.
- Although they were once an important tool for managing a broad range of conservation and environmental programs, developing Administrative Rules in Wisconsin is no longer a functional process for addressing important conservation or environmental issues.
- A growing number of Wisconsin citizens are losing faith in the ability of state government to create solutions to our greatest environmental challenges.
The report notes that Wisconsin citizens across the political spectrum have generally accepted the need for state agencies to take actions to ensure sustainable management of natural resources and environmental protection, all guided by the best available science and robust public input.
“We don’t think it’s hopeless, or we wouldn’t be spending so much time on this,” says Clark. Increasing awareness about the issues and a more robust system of water testing are cause for optimism, he adds. “If we had a citizen referendum process in our state, citizens would vote overwhelmingly for clean water, to take action on PFAS, nitrates, any number of things. There’s plenty of evidence for that.”
But the state doesn’t have such a process. Instead, in the past decade, the Legislature has thwarted efforts to address these issues. The report cites several specific actions that have led to the collapse of the system. They include:
- 2011 Wisconsin Act 21, which gave significant new powers to the Legislature and limited agency authority in reviewing and approving new administrative rules.
- 2017 Wisconsin Act 57, which further limited agencies’ ability to develop administrative rules by establishing lower thresholds for economic impact analysis and allowing legislative committees to block rules for indefinite periods of time.
- 2017 Wisconsin Act 39, which created a 30-month deadline for development of new administrative rules and nullified all work on any rules not completed in that time frame.
- A series of legislative changes between 2011 and 2018 that removed local control from communities, preventing them from developing locally based standards for environmental protection.
- Coordinated efforts between Wisconsin Senate leadership and appointees of Gov. Scott Walker’s administration to prevent Gov. Tony Evers from seating appointees, including seats on the Natural Resources Board.
Economic impact analyses can stall rulemaking if costs to impacted businesses are determined to be $10 million over two years. The law makes no provision for balancing that by assessing and comparing environmental economic benefits derived from sound natural resources policies and resulting ecosystem services and avoided costs. The report includes a recommendation to reform this imbalance, but as with many of the policy recommendations, it seems unlikely that lawmakers will listen.
While these and other actions have seriously hamstrung the abilities of state agencies to perform their duties, there’s reason for hope in a couple of areas, the report’s authors said. One is an increase in local action. In northwest Wisconsin, towns have set out to regulate the operation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), drawing immediate legal threats from WMC. Other citizen activists are fighting CAFO pollution in central and northeastern Wisconsin. Monroe County decided not to wait for the state to act on climate change and instead decided to address what could be done locally. Municipalities including Wausau and Madison are working locally to address PFAS contamination.
“What I’ve seen in the last four or five years is people have begun to say ‘We’re not going to talk to state legislators. I’ll talk to mayors, county boards, businesses in our areas who have funds to help,” says Heinen.
Federal funds will also flow to states as part of federal infrastructure legislation that includes $10 billion in grants to address emerging contaminants, including PFAS and lead pipes that contaminate drinking water. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will also pump money into state and local economies to address climate change to scale up renewable energy production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Whether those funds help in Wisconsin could be determined by this fall’s elections. The Walker administration turned down federal funds for such infrastructure project as high-speed rail. If Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels wins, he might take a similarly skeptical view of federal funds that boost green infrastructure.
The report makes dozens of recommendations, but Clark says there’s one overriding need: “Citizens ought to be holding legislators to the fire.”
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