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Citizen Voices Matter: In Madison, Wisconsin

Patricia Chabot knows firsthand that important state government work is often practically invisible. In fact, it’s the work that people don’t notice and can’t measure that makes the most difference in protecting the public’s natural resources.

However, Pat fears that wanting government oversight only when it’s convenient will lead to growing inability of agencies like the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to lead in times of public health or environmental crises.

“Every time you hear someone talk about how they want fewer regulations or smaller government, you have to think about its cost when there is a problem,” said Pat. “When something bad happens – like a crude oil spill or a drinking water crisis in Flint, MI or Kewaunee County – the first thing people ask is ‘where was the DNR?’ I think people just expect that government – that somebody – is going to be there when they need help.”

Patricia spent a lot of time outdoors while growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, and that led to studying biology in college. “Reading Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was amazing and the first Earth Day – spent picking up trash on a beach on Lake Superior – really made me feel that I needed and wanted to do something more to help.”

She worked in state and county government natural resources protection in Minnesota and Indiana for over two decades. After she moved to Wisconsin, Pat worked as the program coordinator in the hazardous waste program in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for 14 years.

It was her job to make sure businesses and the state government followed state and federal antipollution laws. She also spent a lot of her career educating the public on the value of recycling, proper waste management, and protecting the environment.

“The DNR has always worked with businesses to help them prevent pollution and learn how it’s in the interest of their bottom line to reduce waste. That’s nothing new,” said Pat. “We always worked with industry, but that needed to be balanced with reasonable environmental law enforcement. That’s why we saw over the years that there was a lot less open dumping or burning waste. People became more conscious of the harm.”

But as major federal laws addressed many of the most visually obvious environmental problems, Pat has become concerned that the public – and importantly, state elected officials – are missing the importance of DNR authority.

Because Pat worked for a program funded primarily by the federal government, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exercised more oversight. She saw her work as part of a larger effort to make environmental protection laws fair in Wisconsin and across the country. She says this is a crucial impact of federal laws: to establish a minimum level of protection to keep consistent and fair rules nationwide.

“That’s why EPA oversight is so important,” said Pat. “If you’re in Wisconsin, you have at least the same protections as other states and that gives our industries a level playing field.” Wisconsin residents also deserve at least a level playing field of public health and environmental protection.

That’s why, after Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a Petition for Corrective Action with the EPA on behalf of 16 citizens last year, Pat signed onto a letter of support to the EPA along with dozens of other retired DNR staff members. She witnessed how the agency had been stripped of its funding, resources and staff over time, and she saw lack of political will at high levels lead to weakened environmental laws and enforcement.  

“When staff members don’t have the resources to do their job or when they feel like agency leaders aren’t on their side, we lose not only the education and prevention work but the time to build evidence for enforcement cases,” said Pat. "The staff who work at the DNR are dedicated, experienced and hard workers. But right now the DNR needs more support and funding from the state elected officials to be able to better protect Wisconsin’s valuable natural resources."