DNR Points to Informal Deals as Pollution Penalties Drop

Reports of environmental violations rose in 2016, but the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sought fewer financial penalties for polluters than in any year since 2011. Court-enforced fines have become less frequent and less severe since Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office in 2011 and appointed home builder Cathy Stepp to head the DNR saying he “wanted someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality.”

Last year, the DNR sent 25 violations to state attorneys for court action. An average of more than 60 environmental violations per year were referred to the state Department of Justice for court action in 2009 and 2010, the last two years of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, according to data provided by the DNR.

Former DNR secretaries said financial penalties for the worst polluters are an important deterrent, but current department officials say they have sought fewer fines because they have placed emphasis on talking to violators to achieve quick corrections of illegal pollution.

By gaining swift voluntary compliance with the law, the department stops pollution before it poses significant harm to public health or the environment, DNR spokesman Jim Dick said.

The department accepted 310 cases for initial investigation and issued 335 notices of violation in 2016. Both numbers are very close to the average for the last eight years.

The department held 306 enforcement conferences to discuss violations with polluters and seek agreements on preventing pollution and conducting environmental cleanups. The number of conferences was higher than the eight-year average of 248. The enforcement conferences typically are the last step before the DNR seeks financial penalties. In some cases, several conferences are held if a polluter resists making improvements or when new violations are discovered.