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Environmental reviews down in Walker’s 1st year

Gov. Scott Walker speaks to the Illinois Chamber of Commerce in Springfield, Ill., recently. The number of environmental inspections conducted by the DNR declined sharply in Walker's first year. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The number of environmental inspections conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources declined sharply in Gov. Scott Walker’s first year, leading advocates to question whether the agency is paying less attention to environmental regulation under the Republican governor.

DNR officials said inspections are down because they face a worker shortage, and note that they are still meeting federal inspection requirements.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analyzed inspection records and reported Sunday that the decreases were seen in most categories affecting air and water quality. Of the biggest drops: Inspections of large farms were down 46 percent, and private well inspections were down 36 percent in 2011.

The decline in inspections mirrors a previously reported decrease in enforcement, the newspaper said.

DNR officials said there have been fewer enforcement actions because of a lack of manpower. They also said Walker’s administration has a greater willingness to work with parties.

When it comes to inspections, Deputy DNR Secretary Matt Moroney said an employee shortage is to blame. He said that during the early months of Walker’s administration, many workers retired, people changed jobs and vacancies increased.

“We take environmental compliance very seriously,” Moroney said. “It’s part of the responsibility we have as a department. But it takes bodies.”

DNR administrators said they are meeting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inspection requirements.

But EPA spokeswoman Phillippa Cannon said the agency raised concerns in November about Wisconsin’s enforcement performance and inspections.

“The state has identified actions it will take to improve its performance,” Cannon said in a statement. “In addition, EPA recently negotiated and signed a performance partnership agreement with Wisconsin to determine compliance and enforcement priorities and set a framework for state inspections and casework.”

DNR inspectors examine records from companies and municipalities and inspect pollution sources — from industrial smokestacks to manure storage on dairy farms.

Former DNR Secretary George Meyer called the drop in inspections “very dramatic,” and believes environmental enforcement has taken a back seat under DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and Moroney. But, he said, he thinks federal regulators will force some improvements.

“The EPA is very hesitant to make critical comments — it’s another strong signal that something is wrong,” Meyer said.

Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, said she worries that groundwater could be contaminated by manure runoff from large dairy and livestock operations.

“There seems to be little monitoring, and when there are complaints by citizens, there seems to be very little follow-up,” Wright said. “That really puts the public at risk.”

Thomas Bauman, the DNR’s manure runoff management coordinator, said he believes the state is meeting the EPA’s expectations for inspecting large farms. He said the DNR started a new program of inspecting how manure is spread on fields — a traditional source of water or groundwater pollution.

And when it comes to blaming the decline on a staff shortage, Wright said: “That’s bunk. It’s not a relevant argument. Even if staffing is down, this is public health we are talking about — the health of future generations. They need to redirect resources.”

According to job data provided to the Journal Sentinel by the DNR, last year’s drop in inspections fell more than the decline in actual number of DNR employees.

But the DNR said new workers will help. Maroney said the agency is hiring or has hired for 350 positions.

“Once we are full-staffed, I think people will say, hey, it’s working,” he said.

Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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