Enforcing Conservation Laws

Since Governor Scott Walker took office and appointed new leadership at the Department of Natural Resources, illegal polluters are being let off the hook when they violate the law.

First, fewer polluters are getting caught. Enforcement actions, the unofficial ‘warning’ against illegal polluters, dropped 55%, from an average of 516 notices per year to just 233. As if that weren’t bad enough, the few polluters that are being caught are getting off scot-free, without having to pay any penalties. There has been an astounding 68% drop in the number of cases against illegal polluters referred for prosecution to the Department of Justice (the average dropped from 65 referrals to just 21).

In short: Fewer polluters are getting caught, and more of the polluters who are caught are getting off the hook. For those of us who live, work, and play in Wisconsin, it means we are being exposed to more pollution from CAFOs, frac sand mines, and other industrial operations.

We can’t afford to allow polluters to run roughshod over the health and future of our families. Demand that Wisconsin’s conservation laws be enforced!

To protect the health of our water, our air and our families, Governor Walker must:

  • Require that the DNR vigorously enforce current air, water, and public health laws.
  • Provide the DNR with the necessary funding and staffing to identify and stop illegal pollution problems as soon as possible.
  • Allow local communities to establish stronger environmental standards and practices where they see fit.

LakeMichiganThe fact that Governor Walker and his administration have been unwilling to enforce our conservation protections signals to polluters that there won’t be repercussions for bad actors. Polluters are reveling in the lack of accountability – and they are doing the math. They know it will be more cost effective to violate their permits because there will be few or no consequences.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is committed to exposing Governor Walker every time his administration fails to enforce a law meant to protect the people of Wisconsin – and we will hold him accountable. With your help, we are bringing widespread attention to this issue and putting pressure on the administration to enforce our air, water, and public health laws.

View the one-page fact sheet about enforcement of our conservation laws.

Take Action

Help Wanted

Even Governor Walker’s own agencies know that there are serious deficiencies in the environmental enforcement program.


Penokee Hills Overlook, Mellen, photo by Azael Meza.

 In the spring of 2012, DNR staff identified the need for 10 additional permitting, monitoring, and compliance staff based on the 54 frac sand sites running at the time. Governor Walker appointee and DNR Secretary, Cathy Stepp, formally requested the addition of just two of the recommended positions. By the time those two positions were finally approved, the number of frac sand sites in Wisconsin had more than doubled.(1)

In the most recent budget, the DNR indicated that the number of environmental enforcement staff employed was not sufficient to meet their enforcement obligations. In particular, DNR indicated that they were most deficient in emerging areas like industrial sand mining, disposal of waste on land, and groundwater protection. Rather than fund requests for additional environmental enforcement positions, Governor Walker recommended that that the legislature fund two environmental assistance coordinators – staff who will help companies fill out new permits rather than ensuring that existing permits are enforced. These positions facilitate a “customer service approach” that focuses on business assistance rather than monitoring air and water pollution.(2)

Reports from personnel inside the DNR claim that some industries – such as the fast growing and very controversial frac sand mining industry – are going unmonitored. A recently retired DNR official (who wishes to remain anonymous) informed the staff of Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters that DNR enforcement staff are not able to monitor the rapidly expanding frac sand industry and that “some facilities will not be seen by a DNR staffer for 20 years.” Our source also tells us of a specific instance of an environmental violation where frac sand run-off pollution entered a trout stream, and the case went unprosecuted due to understaffing.

We’re not the only ones sounds the alarm on Wisconsin’s relaxed approach to enforcing our own laws. In recent years, the U.S. EPA has even raised concerns from Wisconsin’s lack of environmental enforcement violation notices.

How Environmental Laws are Enforced in Wisconsin

The goal of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and other environmental programs is to ensure that we are protecting our natural resources and public health by reducing pollution released into our environment. Enforcement helps to achieve that goal by putting a financial cost on illegal polluting so that it doesn’t pay to pollute. In addition, penalties collected help fund clean water and air programs.

Even when implemented perfectly, Wisconsin’s environmental enforcement program gives polluters a lot of leeway before they begin to face consequences for breaking standards.

Here’s how it works:

If a company is thought to be violating an environmental law, they are issued a Notice of Non-Compliance (NON) by the DNR, which serves as an informal warning. Once a facility is given a NON, they are given the opportunity to fix their pollution problem without consequence. The vast majority of Wisconsin’s enforcement cases end there.

If a facility is in significant non-compliance, the DNR will likely issue a Notice of Violation (NOV). Once a NOV is issued, the DNR enforcement staff and the operators of the polluting facility will sit down and work out a compliance agreement to get the facility back to meeting their legal standards. If the violations can be addressed to the DNR’s satisfaction, the case may be considered closed. However, if the violations are severe enough, the case may be referred to the Department of Justice for formal enforcement action in state courts. This is extremely rare…and growing even more rare under the Walker administration.

Examples of Environmental Enforcement Failures

  • In the spring of 2012, it was found that Herr Environmental was treating fields with 300% as much human waste as their permit allowed, endangering 40 nearby drinking water wells. They even cooked their books to show that they were in compliance.(3) Herr Environmental is a known “bad actor,” having been slapped with a $240,000 fine for previous environmental offenses.(4) The top DNR investigator on the most recent infraction called the violations among “the worst he’d seen.”(3) Surely this means Herr Environmental was punished to the full extent of the law? Not with Governor Walker in charge. Instead, Herr Environmental got off the hook with the lowest fine possible. Political appointees in the Walker DNR overrode the DNR staff’s recommendation to pursue charges through the Department of Justice. Incidentally, the owners of Herr Environmental – Richard and Jody Herr – are donors to Scott Gunderson, a top political appointee in the Walker DNR who urged DNR staff to drop enforcement proceedings against the company.(3) The Herrs have also donated to Governor Walker, and $2250 to Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and husband Rep. Joel Kleefisch (5) who interceded on the behalf of the Herrs – trying to get the DNR to let up on the known polluter.
  • On July 17, 2012 a section of a regional fuel distribution pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 54,600 gallons of gasoline in the Town of Jackson. The DNR sat on test results showing that residents may have benzene in their drinking water for months.(6)
  • Although four Trempealeau County frac sand facilities are under investigation for violating stormwater permits for allowing sand to run into nearby streams and wetlands in July of 2013, sources living in sand mining areas report – and even have video footage of – many spills that have gone uninvestigated by the DNR.(7)

Public Pressure Works


Pewits Nest in Sauk County, photo by Jess Haven.

When violations make the front page, as was the case when WE Energies had a large coal ash spill into Lake Michigan from their Oak Creek power plant and when a sand mine had a spill into the wild and scenic St. Croix River,(8) enforcement action follows. In the Oak Creek power plant case, the violation was sent to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, who took enforcement action against the company.(9) WE Energies ultimately paid a $100,00 fine. In the case of the St. Croix sand spill, the Preferred Sands company was referred to the Department of Justice, where they were fined $200,000.

Together, we can expose the violations, put public pressure on the Walker administration, and hold polluters accountable. But it won’t happen if we aren’t committed to holding Governor Walker’s feed to the environmental enforcement fire!

Do you have a story about how the violation of an environmental law has impacted you or your neighbors? Please contact us right away at info@conservationvoters.org.

Related Links