Letter to the Editor: Why All the Surprise?

The latest Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau report, revealing deficiencies in the DNR’s regulation of water pollution, has evoked responses of “surprise” from various leaders, including the Natural Resource Board, Governor Walker, and those serving in the legislature.

For those of us living with the resulting contamination due to lack of enforcement, the audit lacked the element of surprise, and rather confirmed what we have said now for well over a decade, confirmed by both Judge Jeffrey Boldt who called conditions in Kewaunee “deplorable…massive regulatory failure,” and USDA researcher Mark Borchardt, who described our well water as “that which he would have expected to find in a third world country.”

Citizens continue to remain repetitively exposed to behaviors that pollute and poison where they live, due to the current system of “voluntary compliance” that has not only failed our state, but fails us nationally, its aftermath scarring the landscape – leaving behind reams of waterways included on the impaired waters list, multi-million dollar pollution clean-up costs, and waters that are neither fit to drink or recreate in.

The systematic failings of the DNR, made public for years now, leave no room for “surprise.” Cuts in budget and the gutting of the DNR, including the DNR Science Department, have been indicative of the inner workings of the current administration and the failings of government to protect both the environment and human health.

Secretary Stepp’s address in an Opinion piece in early May marginalized Kewaunee’s crisis, and included the statement that our nitrate problem is shared by many communities, and “is consistent with statewide averages in agricultural areas and areas without sewers.”

What Secretary Stepp fails to recognize is that those high nitrates shared throughout the state exceed EPA standards for safety, and deem one’s water undrinkable. The day after Stepp’s opinion appeared in the paper, the news broke of rotavirus and salmonella found in 11 wells in our county, and the concern that two schools were in the radius where possible contamination could occur. Stepp’s parting words were a particularly stinging slap, claiming that “the public should also know we will continue to use the full extent of our authority to pursue violations that happen on the ground.” The audit, and ongoing contamination in Kewaunee, reveals otherwise.

Embracing the concept of “when bad becomes normal” Stepp did less in her statement to diminish the problems we have in Kewaunee, but rather highlighted the problem of high nitrates which exists throughout the state.

The reduction in budget and cuts to DNR staff occurred all the while “streamlined permitting” and “collaboration” with industry-minded individuals was touted by the agency. Former Deputy Secretary of the DNR, Matt Moroney, left no room for surprise or confusion on the agency’s direction, when he stated in 2013 that:  “The DNR is no longer a strong advocate one way or another on environmental issues” [Feb. 28, 2013, Agri-view].

While cuts in both budget and staff ensued, permit streamlining for CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] exploded in the state, with their number now reaching 282 – with many more permits awaiting approval. Many existing CAFOs are also seeking expansions, expansions which further leave communities shouldering the burden of the external costs of these operations, and the resulting contamination of the land, air and water where we live – a constant and continuous threat to property values, quality of life, and human health.

For far too long the DNR has been negligent in its responsibilities to Wisconsin’s citizens and its beautiful natural resources, formerly the envy of the nation – Wisconsin, the destination the famous logo from the ’70s, heralded as the place to “escape” to.

While people can muddy the waters with debate, the undrinkable, unswimmable, unfishable waters of northeast Wisconsin tell the bigger story – the unsurprising truth.


Nancy Utesch

Kewaunee, Wis.

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