UPDATE: Audit finds DNR not enforcing own rules on wastewater po - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

UPDATE: Audit finds DNR not enforcing own rules on wastewater pollution violations

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A state audit of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) found the agency issued notices of violation in only six percent of cases where the evidence showed municipal or industrial permit holders clearly violated wastewater pollution rules from 2005 through 2014.

The DNR administers the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) program, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into surface water and groundwater. As part of the program, the DNR is responsible for ensuring approximately 1,250 municipal wastewater treatment plants, industrial wastewater treatment facilities and large livestock farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are complying with the terms of their permits.

"These are the ones that have the greatest impact on water quality and if we're not following up on violations that means our water is dirtier," explained George Meyer, who served as DNR Secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson from 1993 to 2001.

But a report by the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) released Friday, found the DNR issued a notice of violation to municipal or industrial permit holders in only 33 of 558 instances for which a notice should have been issued based on the agency's own policies.

"Six percent is so dramatically low, this has to be a matter of priority of the agency heads not to have enforcement to get it that low," said Meyer. "It should be very close to 100 percent."

But DNR officials told 27 News those numbers are misleading.

"DNR most often starts with most appropriate enforcement approach and only escalates to a more aggressive approach if a more collaborative approach does not result in compliance," wrote DNR Spokesperson James Dick in a statement. "Because DNR often uses other means to obtain compliance, the number of Notice of Violations is not a good indicator of whether an environmental issue was addressed."

But the LAB report states there is little evidence to suggest "other means" were used to obtain such compliance and that because the DNR's rules on enforcement lay out a clear step-by-step process, any variation from that would go against the agency's own protocol.

"We have heard in the last couple of weeks from the DNR that these numbers are going down for the exact reason that perhaps the water is getting cleaner, there are fewer violations. This is really some non-partisan data to show that that's just not the case," said Tressie Kamp, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates.

Kamp told 27 News that equally troubling as the low enforcement levels are the lack of inspections the DNR is performing on facilities covered under the WPDES program.

From 2005 through 2006, the DNR met its goal on the inspection of municipal wastewater treatment sites 92 percent of the time. That fell to a low of just 45 percent during 2010 and 2011.

The percentage of major industrial facilities inspected declined from a high of 95 percent during 2005-06 to a low of 21 percent during 2010-11.

"You don't find violations if you don't look for them," said Meyer.

"What this all means is that we don't know enough about the pollutants going into our water," said Kamp.

The DNR noted that inspections of CAFO's went up from 2005 to 2014, but according to the audit, the rate never exceeded 48 percent.

"The DNR appreciates the Audit Bureau’s analysis of our municipal, industrial and agricultural wastewater permitting programs," wrote Dick. "We find the report, which covered a 10 year period, to be largely consistent with ongoing efforts the department is or has undertaken in these areas. The DNR has recognized many of the issues identified by the audit bureau, and has already, or is in the process of, establishing systems to address them."

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