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GOP lawmakers call for runoff rules hearing

By Bill Clements
Special to The Daily Reporter

Six Republican state representatives are pressing for a hearing on new rules that would further restrict phosphorous runoff at a cost to businesses and municipalities the lawmakers say is unreasonable.

But environmental groups such as Clean Wisconsin Inc., Madison, say they wish the rules, scheduled to take effect next month, were even more stringent.

What both sides agree on is the substantial cost of implementing the rules that the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved June 23: nearly $2 billion, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Another estimate puts the implementation cost at more than $3 billion, according to the business lobby group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Inc., Madison.

The changes strengthen rules that reduce phosphorous pollution from farms, factories and sewage treatment plants. Phosphorus is a nutrient that promotes weed and algae growth.

If the Legislature makes no changes, the rules, known as CR 10-035, will become law in mid-August.

In a July 14 letter to Assembly Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and his five GOP colleagues wrote the cost to Wisconsin businesses and municipalities is too high during a time of economic duress.

“With high unemployment and a difficult economic environment, Wisconsin cannot afford to impose unreasonable costs on our businesses that could result in job losses, for what would only result in an insignificant decrease in phosphorous loading,” the letter states.

Others who signed the letter are Rep. Dan LeMahieu, R-Cascade; Rep. Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem; Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz; Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford; and Rep. Lee Nerison, R-Westby.

As of Thursday afternoon, Black had neither responded to the request for a hearing from his Republican colleagues, nor returned calls from The Daily Reporter for comment.

Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, chairman of the state Senate’s Committee on Environment, has scheduled a Wednesday hearing on the new phosphorous rules. That extends the date on which the rules would take effect if no changes happen until mid-August.

Under current rules, point sources — businesses and municipalities with DNR discharge permits — are subject to phosphorous limits of 1.0 milligrams per liter.

The new rules would cut those phosphorous limits to 0.10 milligrams per liter for discharges into rivers, 0.075 milligrams per liter for streams and 0.04 milligrams per liter for lakes.

According to the letter from Ott and his GOP colleagues, the DNR estimates “that about 20 percent of phosphorous loading in Wisconsin is attributable to point sources. Therefore, under CR 10-035, the overall impact on phosphorous loading would be minimal and would be achieved at great expense to taxpayers.”

According to the letter, the six lawmakers agree that “reducing phosphorous loading on our lakes and streams is an important goal,” but they question the “troubling” method.

In particular, they question the part of the new rules that commits the state to reimbursing the agricultural industry for a significant portion of expenses.

“Considering Wisconsin’s financial condition, state government is in no position to make financial commitments to anyone,” the letter states.

During a Thursday interview, Ott said the state had done a great deal to reduce phosphorous loading and added, “as you get closer to zero (in terms of how much runoff is allowed), it gets a lot more expensive. I’d say some phase-in would be reasonable.”

Ott said a hearing would give everyone involved more time to consider the changes that were introduced in March and passed in June — a turnaround time he described as unusually quick.

In a July 13 memo to all legislators attributed to a group of business associations (the Cooperative Network, Midwest Food Processors Association, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, WMC and the Wisconsin Paper Council), the associations laid out their arguments against the new rules.

“Because of the rule’s substantial cost, limited benefit, and hasty process for enactment, we are asking that the Legislature take the time to determine whether Clearinghouse Rule 10-035 is the most effective way to reduce phosphorous loading in Wisconsin water bodies, while at the same time protecting Wisconsin jobs and our economy,” the memo states.

Amber Meyer Smith, program director for Clean Wisconsin, has called the new rules an important step toward reducing algae blooms and cleaning up the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.

Nearly one-half of Wisconsin’s waterways — 700-plus — are polluted enough that the federal government lists them as impaired.

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