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Editorial: DNR waste permit needs new course

A good politician can convince people that what’s right before their eyes isn’t what they think it is.

The bureaucrats at the state Department of Natural Resources aren’t good politicians. They’re telling people that what’s new actually is old, and the agency is backing up the absurd claim with a permit.

That wastewater permit categorizes the new Richland Center Renewable Energy plant as an old source of discharge even though the plant is not completed.

The permit lets Foremost Farms USA and Schreiber Foods, the partners running the dairy waste processing plant, to discharge wastewater into the Pine River under an interim limit for effluents. For at least the next four years, the limit lets the plant dump far more phosphorus into the river than would be allowed under a new-source permit.

“Old” is a typically illogical conclusion based on effluent guidelines that can baffle even those DNR chiefs who sign the permits. The DNR, in shortsighted fashion, acknowledges the plant is new but validates the permit because the waste comes from Foremost and Schreiber’s same three Richland Center factories, which previously trucked their waste to Richland Center’s treatment plant.

It’s a wastewater shell game. Discharge permits should reduce the amount of phosphorus in lakes and rivers, not offer loopholes to companies that promise job creation.

Foremost and Schreiber are promising 60 to 75 new manufacturing jobs tied to the plant. That’s a welcome headline for a desperate governor’s office.

But the environmental cost is too high, according to the law firm Midwest Environmental Advocates, which is contesting the permit on behalf of residents who live downstream from the plant. Midwest asserts new plants must comply with the state’s stricter phosphorus discharge limit even if the companies that own the plants are old sources of waste.

That has the spirit of the rule in its favor. Furthermore, there is no reasonable argument in opposition to it.
But there is big money.

The technology required to hit that stricter limit could add millions of dollars to the cost of a new wastewater plant. That kind of expense could threaten a project. It could even mean no new jobs in Richland Center. It could kill a headline.

Lost in the maze of permit guidelines and effluent limits, the DNR could have made a mistake in granting the interim permit. If so, there’s a simple fix: change the permit to new-source.

It’s also possible the new plant is a political chip. Politicians defend their chips, often by sacrificing honesty.

The DNR doesn’t have the guile for the political game, and should have the scruples to acknowledge the truth.

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