Political Climate Change: Scott Walker’s DNR

Nathan Kober

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources created some controversy recently when information regarding Climate Change was removed from the department’s website, and some questionable new statements were added. The website now describes Climate Change in a way that is at odds with the scientific consensus, and it’s own scientific research, saying  “As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

The changes brought criticism and concern from scientists and environmental activists in Wisconsin, including lead scientists from the UW System. Cathy Stepp, the current head of the DNR, did little to alleviate the controversy when she was asked about the changes and her views on climate change. Stepp told the Wisconsin State Journal in an interview that there is substantial disagreement among scientists regarding the cause of global warming. This is in stark contrast to surveys among scientists in the relevant field, more than 98 percent of whom agree that carbon emissions are causing global temperatures to increase. Stepp also said that climate change is not important to the DNR’s mission, which is merely to protect wisconsin natural resources, a task seemingly unaffected by the possibility of global environmental collapse.

The DNR’s scientifically spurious information replaced detailed information on climate change in the great lakes region that had been on the website before. The website previously stated “Human activities that increase heat–trapping (‘green house’) gases are the main cause. Earth’s average temperature has increased 1.4 °F since 1850 and the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. Increasing temperatures have led to changes in rainfall patterns and snow and ice cover. These changes could have severe effects on the Great Lakes and the plants, wildlife and people who depend on them.”

The decision to remove scientific facts from the DNR in favor of misinformation is a noticeable outgrowth of deeper changes in the agency’s public agenda that have been underway for years. However out of line the DNR and Stepp’s position on climate change may be compared to accepted science, they are perfectly in line with the evolution of the agency since 2011. Since Governor Scott Walker took office, the agency has cut hundreds of staff, especially in its scientific research department, and greatly relaxed its enforcement of environmental regulation. The extent of these changes and their effects are widespread, rooted in Walker’s allegiance to ‘business friendly’ politics.

Open For Business

Governor Walker has never hid his contempt for the idea that government should at times restrict individual business interests in order to protect the environment or the broader public interest. In 2011 Walker appointed Stepp, a home developer who criticized the DNR before being appointed to lead the agency, because she had what Walker described as a “Chamber of Commerce Mentality.” The Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce is a business interest lobby, yet a background in that narrow field is ubiquitous in Walker’s appointments to agencies that have wildly different purposes.  A Chamber of Commerce mentality or a background in business have been cited by Walker as the primary qualifications to lead everything from the DNR to the UW Board of Regents, neither of which exist to support business interests.

Walker appointed Stepp with the stated interest of making the DNR more friendly to business. Stepp had previously criticized the DNR as “anti-developer” and “pro garter snake,” in an online rant now infamous among her critics. The decision was immediately criticized by conservation groups and political opponents, not always in good taste. One Democratic state senator described it as “putting Lindsay Lohan in charge of a rehab center.”

Stepp said her plans to make the DNR open to business interest would not interfere with environmental protection. However, the two are often in conflict, and a pattern shows the agency under Stepp has consistently chosen business protection over environmental protection, or simply abdicated its responsibilities. Since 2011 there have been some major changes in the DNR’s operations. The most important early on was the decision to stop the agency from taking a position on laws, or even providing information on laws. The agency now only provides information to lawmakers when they are asked to, which rarely happens under the Republican controlled legislature.

In 2013 Walker signed a law that changed regulations on iron mining, allowing companies to dump mining waste in nearby water sources, doubling the amount of land where mines are allowed to pollute, and allowing the DNR to exempt companies from parts of the law. The early version of the law was written by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a business lobby, with the help of Gogebic Taconite LLC, the only major metallic mining company in Wisconsin, and Senator Tom Tiffany.

Gogebic was planning a $1.5 Billion mine in the iron rich region of Northwest Wisconsin at the time, and in the years before the law passed Gogebic owners and executives poured money into the Wisconsin political system. John Dickinson, CEO of Gogebic donated $1,000 to Tiffany’s 2012 campaign. Christopher Cline, owner of Gogebic, donated more than $60,000 to Walker between 2010 and the time the law passed, and more than $40,000 to other pro mining candidates. Wisconsin Democracy Project, which tracks political spending, found that Walker received $11 million from interests that support mining deregulation from 2010 to 2012.

Walker argued the mine would create thousands of jobs, citing a study by Gogebic. The company dropped the project later on because the area had more wetlands than they had anticipated, making it costlier to develop, but as of now the law still governs future projects. Before the project was dropped, the DNR conducted a study on the possible environmental concerns regarding mining in the area. The report drew criticism from Tiffany, who said the DNR’s science was biased, and that the DNR should not conduct research on climate change, because it is only a theoretical construct.

In the following 2015-2017 state budget, the number of scientific researchers at the DNR was significantly reduced. The cuts were not a cost saving measure, as many of the positions removed were federally funded at no cost to the state. In fact, the reason for the cuts was explained quite openly on multiple occasions; Republicans did not like the research being done. When Scott Hull, a section chief in the Bureau of Science Services, asked for clarification about the cuts from Mark Aquino, director of the DNR’s Office of Business Support and Science, he was told explicitly that scientists were being cut because of the “legislative perception of research not being well aligned with program needs.”

This was confirmed by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which reported the changes to lawmakers at the time saying “some have argued that the Department should not focus on controversial science projects, such as regarding the study of climate change or mining projects.” However, climate change and mining are not scientifically controversial, only politically so. In his email, Hull said that scientists in the DNR felt threatened by political pressure from the state. “Staff already have low trust in the administration and frankly are beginning to wonder if management team are playing it straight with them.”

Scientific research has not been the only target of personnel cuts. Hundreds of position across the board have been eliminated along with funding in each biennial budget. While the DNR’s funding and staff have been slashed, environmental issues in Wisconsin have developed with little oversight and less intervention.

The Wild West Wisconsin Mines

One of the largest growing industries in Wisconsin over the past five years has been mining sand used in the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” industry. In the fracturing process, a well is drilled into a layer of earth containing natural gas that cannot be extracted by traditional methods. In order to release the gas from hard layers of soil, a water mixture is pumped into the well at high pressure. The ‘frac sand’ is pumped as well to hold the cracked layers of soil open so the natural gas can escape. The process has created a new energy boom in the United States, but it has been connected to multiple environmental controversies, including water contamination and a massive increase in earthquakes. Before 2009 Oklahoma experienced about 2 earthquakes per year on average, whereas now it has about as many per day.

A majority of the frac sand in the United States has taken place in Wisconsin, making it an essential part of this massive industry.  As fracking has boomed recently, so has the mining, and so far the industry has only been lightly regulated. The number of sand mines has increased from 5 to over 150 in the past 6 years.

Even though the industry has little regulation, it is still notorious for noncompliance. The DNR is woefully unable to regulate the booming industry due to a combination of understaffing and a lack of clear policy. In 2012 the DNR estimated it would need an additional 10 inspectors in order to properly monitor the 54 mines that were active at the time. Since then two inspectors have been added, while the number of mines has exploded to more than 150.

The major health concern around the mines is silica dust that drifts from the mines, which are often next to residential areas. Although the DNR has limits on how much these mines can process, those limits do not account for that fact that multiple mines are often located in one area. The DNR also conducts almost no inspections of their own to measure air quality by the mines. Independent studies have found Silica dust far above World Health Organization recommendations, and the DNR’s own standards.

The DNR does not require mining companies to monitor fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which refers for Particulate Matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers. This kind of dust can cause respiratory and heart problems, so the EPA and World Health Organizations say exposure to levels above 12 ppm can be dangerous, especially in the long term. Silica dust specifically it listed as an occupational hazard by OSHA, and fracking companies have been notorious for not complying with legal standards. In a survey conducted by OSHA, 39 percent of sampled job sites had levels of silica dust 10 times the recommended level or higher.

The DNR review process for sand mining companies contains the assumption that the mechanical process of sand mining does not create PM2.5 silica dust. This has been criticized by the EPA, which sent the DNR a letter in 2014, stating it is not “accurate or appropriate” to exempt sand mining from regulating these emissions. In contrast, researchers from UW Eau Claire have said that silica dust from mining could be especially dangerous because recently mined sand is sharper than typically existing dust.

The DNR and Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a report in September 2011 stating that these emissions would not be regulated because there was little published evidence of health risk caused by “intermittent or occasional off-site exposures” for people near cites. Yet the number of active mines has exploded since that time, and the exposures face by many is no longer intermittent, especially for residents living in towns without zoning restrictions. Researchers have found particulate levels of above 50 near mines, and yet the DNR still conducts no serious research into whether this exposure is dangerous to the nearby public.

The DNR and DHS statement in 2011 was also based on the idea that more research needed to be conducted. Yet since then both agencies have been petitioned to do just that, and have instead completely abdicated that responsibility.

In many small towns, residents have reported respiratory problems since the mining boom started. On windy days, dust covers cars and finds its way into nearby homes. The majority of the mines have been built in towns that often do not have zoning laws, so businesses can mine on whatever land they can buy. This means large scale mining operations with no regulations on the emissions of particles known to be potentially harmful have been placed next to homes, even near schools.

The frac sand mining boom has been followed by a flood of political money. Many of the rural towns where mines operate are stripped for cash, and mining companies strategically donate to communities in order to gain support. At the state level frac sand companies have also donated millions of dollars to legislatures and Walker. Despite growing concerns about the industry, regarding everything from air and water quality, to direct health concerns, to farming and wildlife quality, the industry has not only warded off any major new regulations, but also any serious enforcement of existing policy, or even serious investigation into the environmental effects of their business.

Meanwhile the industry is violating regulations at an exceptional rate. Typically, inspectors find the large majority of businesses to be in compliance with the law, yet for frac sand mining the ratio is reversed. According to data from the DNR, about 40 percent of sand mining companies in Wisconsin have committed Stage 2 violations, meaning they violated a regulation and failed to comply after being cited. Inspectors from the DNR say they send noncompliance notices to more than 80 percent of sites they visit.

The case of Smart Sands illustrates the DNR’s regulation of this industry. In 2012 the company’s operation in Monroe County was found to be violating seven different compliance standards from their permit, including air pollution standards. The company was not properly controlling dust and was also removing top soil at a rate 10 times higher than they were permitted. In spite of those serious violations, the company has been admitted into the DNR’s Green Tier program, an environmental regulation standard given to companies that have shown an outstanding record of exceeding the DNR’s standards. In exchange the company is given more flexibility to control its own operational standards.

Water and Wildlife

Wisconsin’s enforcement of water protection has led to the state coming under federal investigation. The state’s enforcement of water quality has changed in a few dramatic ways under Walker and Stepp. The DNR’s wetland protection policy has been relaxed in multiple ways, allowing for more developments and pollution in wetland areas. The state has also allowed an incredible increase in commercial well building, and relaxed enforcement of fertilizer runoff.

In 2015 the DNR removed its water department. Functions including wetlands protection were transferred to the department of business services, described as the agency’s “one stop shop for business needs” on its website. This was just another step in Walker’s relaxing of wetlands protection. In 2012 Walker signed a controversial wetlands deregulation bill in front of real estate developers, to a standing ovation. The bill allowed for a new permitting process for projects smaller than 10,000 square feet, and forced the DNR to process the permits in 40 days or it is automatically approved.

A major component of wetlands development is the mitigation process, where developers have to finance wetlands replacement projects for any wetlands area they remove. The concept is scientifically dodgy, as wetlands areas are incredibly complex ecosystems that cannot be created from scratch. It is especially difficult, if not impossible to guarantee that whatever new wetland is created will be similar to the area remove. There is also an issue of compliance, as scientists find that many wetlands mitigation projects amount to little more than ponds. This is compounded by the fact that wetlands replacement projects are genuinely difficult to complete, requiring advanced scientific knowledge and years of follow up inspections.

Following the new wetlands bill the number of permit request for wetland development increased dramatically. In 2015 the process reached a tipping point, where viable land for mitigation projects were temporarily exhausted. Wetland replacement projects have to be carried out on land adjacent to already existing wetland, which is limited.

Yet the major environmental concerns related to Wisconsin’s water have come from two other major sources. First, the states lose regulation on high capacity wells, which have the ability to drain nearby water sources if used unrestrained, and second, the DNR’s nearly total abdication of their regulations on pollution.

High capacity wells are essential to many of Wisconsin’s major businesses, especially agriculture. However, there is currently no standard for regulating these wells in total, only individually. A new law currently in waiting has caused division between Wisconsin’s agriculture and other major industries, and private landowners and conservationist. Waterfront property owners especially are worried about the effects unregulated wells may have on their property value if the water is drained.

This issue is more nuanced than pollution or regulatory violations, since both sides clearly have legitimate concerns. However, the absence of any concerted government effort to address the major problem, which is controlling the total amount of water that can be used by industry, shows the danger of Wisconsin’s current absentee governance on the environment. Overuse of water, like overfishing or hunting, is a classic example of commons use that needs public policy. Scientists have also warned the problem will grow worse with Climate Change, showing the need for more research on that topic as well.

The Long View

Yet a state audit, federal investigations and internal reports show that Wisconsin DNR, under direction from partisan leadership, is no longer a functioning government agency. A State audit found the agency only issued 33 notices for water violations out of 558 cases that should have been enforced according to their own standards. From 2005-06, the DNR inspected 95 percent of major industrial facilities. That number dropped to 21 percent in 2010-2011. During the same period inspections for municipal wastewater treatment plants saw a similar plummet, from 92 percent to 45 percent.

It is not surprising then that fines issued from the DNR have decreased dramatically as well. Fines for pollution fell 78 percent in one year from 2014 to 2015. Specifically, penalties for wastewater management fell from a 10-year average of $455,407 to $12,057 in 2015. The state audit drew criticism from both sides of the political aisle, not just conservationists. That is not surprising, as Wisconsin has one of the largest hunting, fishing and general outdoor communities in the country. It took decades of concerted efforts from wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists to bring wildlife such as native Sturgeon, which were once endangered, back to sustainable levels.

The inability to view the environment outside of a political lense is a condition that affects the most strident partisan ideologues, but not the public at large. For most, Wisconsin’s environment is not a political chess piece, or some abstraction that only incessant liberals care about, but rather the wildlife, lakes, streams, game and forests the state is renowned for. Polls show the majority of Americans support stronger government action to deal will climate, not a more hands off approach.

As Scott Walker has said, economic improvement and environmental protection do not have to be in conflict. That is to say, strong environmental regulations do not automatically harm economic activity or growth. A reckless absence of regulation does however, damaging the economy, as pollution of the air and water, overuse of natural resources and environmental harm generally take an environmental toll on society.

While Scott Walker has said he wants to make Wisconsin open for business, the economic results of his deregulation campaign has been mixed. Since he took office Wisconsin’s economic recovery has lagged behind the rest of the country. For every quarterly jobs report of Walker’s first five years in office Wisconsin was below average. Walker and his political allies have attacked environmental regulation under the basis that it kills jobs, yet there is no evidence that the two are even related. Regulations may restrict specific jobs, but the idea that fewer regulations means more economic growth is simply not supported by large scale evidence. In the neighboring state of Minnesota, the government has enacted much stronger environmental policy in the last 5 years that Wisconsin, and the state’s recovery has surpassed Wisconsin’s by every metric.

This dynamic will become even more impactful as the inevitable effects of global warming start to seriously affect Wisconsin’s environment and economy. Already winter tourist attractions are being affected, as winter starts to recede. In recent years, ski visits to Wisconsin has dropped by more than a third, as winter temperatures have increased by 4 degree Fahrenheit since 1970. Recently Madison had its hottest day in the history of winter, and nationally, spring is arriving early along much of the east coast. Certain predictable effects of climate change include damage to wetlands, drying up of certain water resources, more severe weather including storms and flooding, all of which will damage infrastructure both public and private, costing taxpayers’ money. Denial will not change that reality, and the costs of those changes to the public will go far beyond the damage of a few unnecessary regulations.

Yet the DNR’s ability to protect Wisconsin’s environment is being curtailed with no end in sight. Recently lawmakers floated the idea of splitting the DNR in order to separate its regulatory functions from its park and wildlife management services. This proposal was not supported by Stepp, and Walker has not indicated he supports it either, but the DNR is still being cut in other ways. In February this year, Walker proposed cutting the DNR’s monthly magazine, which is self-supporting, in order to be more efficient. Lawmakers say they have been flooded with complaints about the decision, and the magazine’s subscription has gone up since the announcement.  Among Wisconsin’s hunting and fishing enthusiasts, information about the state’s wildlife, and strong safeguards to protect it are not political obstacles, but rather the state’s best attraction.

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