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March 30, 2017Published Article

Legislative Committee Hearing on WDNR Wastewater Permitting and Enforcement

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee directed the Legislative Audit Committee to conduct an audit on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNRD) permitting authority under the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) program. The audit was published in June of 2016 and revealed concerning results. The audit and the WDNR’s response were discussed at public hearing of the Legislative Audit Committee on March 14. Click here to view the full audit.

The auditors explained WPDES permitting could be broken down into three distinct sections: industrial, municipal, and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). WDNR expenditures increased from $9.3 million in 2005-2006 to $10.5 million in 2014-2015, an 11% increase. WDNR salaries accounted for 90% of the total expenditures. Fee revenue from the two defined periods declined from $6.2 million to $5.3 million as the number of permittees decreased 10%. The number of permits issued has fluctuated over time. 2011 was the all-time low, likely attributable to staff reductions due to retirements.

The number of inspections declined after 2006 and hit an all-time low in 2010-2011, but have been on the rise since. In the two year period of 2005-2006, inspections were roughly 96%, compared to 2014-2015 when they were only about 20%. Additionally, from 2005-2014, only 33 of 558 (5.9%) of those in violation were sent notices, and 17 of those did not address all of the violation issues. This is especially significant because the WDNR follows the “stepped enforcement” process, which was initially established to save time and money However, this means that the 558 violations were at the most critical point and should have been issued multiple exceedances at that point. The auditors also noticed that funds decreased from enforcement and compliance as those staffers were moved to permitting and the number of CAFO permits increase dramatically, compared to a slight increase for municipalities and industry.

The EPA stated that Wisconsin is doing a good job with enforcement and compliance compared to other states in Region 5.

WDNR Response

The WDNR was offered the opportunity to respond in the hearing, and has made several changes to address the results of the audit. They have moved four staffers to improve the CAFO permit-to-staff ratio, and have created a website dedicated to online permitting. The website is currently in testing stages, but will be designed to address nutrient management plans and give insight to the public regarding current permits and applications. 

The permit backlog is now down to 20% and the WDNR is aiming for the EPA recommendation of 10% by December 2018. The backlog grew because companies could not afford to implement the phosphorous regulations, and the WDNR wanted to address this issue with the EPA before penalizing violators. Reducing the backlog is proving to be very difficult since the WDNR is facing substantial staffing issues. After mass retirements in 2011, the average employee turnover is about 20% annually. This is especially problematic because many of the jobs are highly specialized and require several year of experience. The WDNR is making internal improvements, like increased check-ins with permittees, creating project trackers, and staff training. They still plan to address several issues, such as improving performance objectives and recording in a database, updating the enforcement handbook and training, better address and document complaints, and finishing educational material on the new multi-discharger variance option.

Legislators requested a new list of internal standards as compared to EPA standards so that improvements can be easily tracked. They also ask that the WDNR compile a report in three months to review their progress in addressing the auditor’s suggestions.

Many questions were raised regarding the cost of WPDES permits, which range from $340-$500 annually. When compared to the potential damage, some legislators believe this cost seems minor and even insignificant. Other states are charging CAFOs up to $12,000 over 10 years (most about $3,500 annually), while Wisconsin is only charging about $1,700 over a 10-year period. Thoughts on increasing this amount and what percentage will go directly to the WDNR were discussed, and will likely be brought up in a future budget meeting. Despite the changes at the EPA under the Trump administration, several legislators voiced their desire to set an example and continue to hold Wisconsin to a higher standard.

Strategies will continue to monitor the issues surrounding the WPES WDNR audit.

Written by Lily Barrie, Michael Best Strategies Intern.

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