Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources isn't following its own policies for policing pollution from large livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants, a state audit released Friday found.
The Legislative Audit Bureau report found the DNR failed to send violation notices in 94 percent of the nearly 560 instances its policies said it should have over the past decade. The report also found that permits have been extended without review for years due to a backlog and that staff members don't have time to thoroughly monitor concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
'I'm troubled and I'm concerned,' said Legislative Audit Committee Co-Chair Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay. 'As somebody that's a strong advocate of clean water, I want to see a comprehensive program and not have a bunch of holes in it.'
DNR spokesman James Dick said the agency often uses methods other than violation notices to obtain compliance, such as discussing violations, even though DNR policy called for violation notices in all 558 cases in the audit.
'Because DNR often uses other means to obtain compliance, the number of (notices of violation) is not a good indicator of whether an environmental issue was addressed,' Dick wrote in an email.
The DNR permits about 1,250 municipal wastewater treatment plants, industrial wastewater treatment facilities and CAFOs. It's required to make sure those entities comply with permit terms, but the audit found the DNR didn't consistently follow its own rules and at times violated statutory requirements.
'This really basic and fundamental function of the DNR, it's not working right now,' said Elizabeth Wheeler, a senior staff attorney at environmental group Clean Wisconsin.
She said if permit holders see there are no real teeth to enforcement, they have little incentive to comply, leading to further water pollution across the state.
Of the 260 CAFOs for which permits were reissued from 2006 to 2014, 17 were inspected after the permit was reissued instead of before, violating statutory requirements. Another 51 were inspected more than 12 months before their permit expired, which is too long before permit expiration because conditions on the farm can change. Dick said of the 17 permitted before inspection, the DNR has found records documenting substantial compliance before the reissuance for 15 of the 17 and believes the remaining two were in substantial compliance as well.
The audit also found staff had only electronically recorded 36 of 1,900 annual reports required of CAFOs from 2005 through 2014. Staff said they didn't record submissions because of a lack of time given other responsibilities. They also said they don't have time to thoroughly review each annual report, meaning instances of noncompliance could be overlooked.
Wisconsin Dairy Business Association Government Affairs Director John Holevoet said that just because staffing is an issue doesn't mean DNR is missing violations. He pointed to the audit's finding that the percentage of CAFOs being inspected twice every five years has increased from 20 percent in 2005 to 2009 to 48 percent in 2010 to 2014.
'I think there are some signs again that they're doing a better job than in the past,' Holevoet said.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp wrote in her response to the audit that the department has recognized many of the issues identified and has already, or is in the process of, establishing systems to address them.
In July 2011, the department received a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identifying 75 issues with state law and administrative rules. Stepp wrote the department has resolved 38 issues and efforts are underway to address 31 others.
Paul Zimmerman, executive director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said the organization wants the DNR to be successful with its program because it would much rather have the state agency issue permits than have the EPA step in.
Cowles said the audit verifies there's a staffing problem for permits and inspections, but he said it's unclear whether that stems from cuts to the DNR that Gov. Scott Walker included in the 2015-2017 budget. A spokesman for Walker declined to comment.
Cowles said he's asking the audit bureau to determine what funding would be necessary to supplement the DNR's wastewater permitting staff and program operations. The committee is also asking the DNR for follow-up reports on many of the issues by Nov. 1.
'This is going to be one of those things that's going to take a while,' Cowles said.