MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The state Department of Natural Resources wants to permanently expand the list of projects that don't require an environmental analysis, including air pollution permits, decisions affecting factory farms and dam repairs.
Officials with the Republican-controlled DNR say the proposal will help streamline the agency's requirements and save money. But the move has drawn the ire of environmental groups, who fear the exemptions could lead to long-lasting damage to Wisconsin's air and water.
"This will have a ripple effect of environmental and public health impacts that may continue for decades to come," Sarah Williams, a Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney, said in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The DNR has been working for much of the past year to revise its environmental review procedures through two emergency rules. Each set of rules has expanded the list of so-called minor actions that don't require an analysis of environmental effects. Now agency officials have finished work on a permanent rule that finalizes the list and plan to ask their board to adopt it during a meeting in Horicon next month.
The proposed list of projects that wouldn't need environmental review includes construction and renewal permits for minor air pollution sources, defined as sources that emit less than 100 tons of any criteria air pollutant annually. Approval of construction plans for wastewater treatment plants and factory farm structures subject to DNR review wouldn't require an analysis. Neither would decisions related to evaluating existing factory farm facilities and systems. Temporary dam drawdowns and dam reconstruction also wouldn't require an analysis.
DNR spokesman Bill Cosh had no immediate comment Wednesday and when asked again on Thursday. Agency officials, however, justified the additions in a memo to the board by saying the agency can use data from similar projects that have been already been reviewed. The changes will result in fewer analytical documents, saving on businesses' costs to provide data and freeing up DNR staff time, they added.
Midwest Environmental Advocates sent the DNR a letter in June calling the exemptions "overexpansive."
The group argued that factory farms have historically been subject to an environmental analysis that provided details on the farms' impact on air and water quality. The permitting process for the farms is more limited in scope and doesn't call for such details, the group said. La Crosse, Eau Claire and Wood counties' health departments also sent the DNR written resolutions raising concerns about factory farms being exempted from an environmental analysis.
Midwest Environmental Advocates also accused the DNR of overlooking the environmental impact of dam construction and repairs and complained that growing the list of minor actions through three sets of rules has created confusion.
DNR leaders acknowledged the concerns in their memo to their board. Emissions from minor sources aren't expected to degrade an area's air quality and construction permits ensure the source abides by emission limits, they wrote.
As for factory farms, they can't operate until they've gotten a pollution permit, a process that involves environmental analysis and public disclosure, the memo said. Temporary dam drawdowns, meanwhile, usually last for short periods and most of a dam's environmental impact occurred when it was built so repairs shouldn't cause any long-term effects, the memo said.
A spokesman for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation didn't return a voicemail message.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is seeking the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, controls the DNR. He has made it a point since he first took office in 2011 to compact the agency's regulations to help businesses grow.
Walker spent his first term as governor pushing business-supported environmental initiatives, creating a new DNR office to support businesses and ordering the agency to take a softer approach in dealing with the public. The number of environmental violations the DNR referred to the state Justice Department dropped by more than half.
The governor also signed legislation giving wastewater plants, paper mills and food processors 20 years to comply with the state's phosphorus pollution limits and relaxing iron mining regulations.
Republican lawmakers retained a Walker proposal in the 2015-17 budget to eliminate 17.5 researcher positions from the DNR's Science Services Bureau, leaving it with 12.85 research positions. Walker's spokeswoman said the cuts are part of the governor's efforts to make state government more efficient.
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