Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Report back: EPA listening session in Eau Claire

Nov 17, 2016

A packed room of approximately 200 Wisconsinites gathered for a listening session with Environmental Protection Agency leaders on November 15, at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire. The crowd welcomed EPA Region 5 Administrator, Robert Kaplan, as well as EPA Water Division leadership.

Attendees represented all of Wisconsin, from northern Bayfield County to Kewaunee County to Madison and Milwaukee in the south. The listening session focused broadly on water quality and quantity issues, and as a result EPA staff heard concerns ranging from lead pipes to water and health impacts of the pesticide Glyphosate. Water quality impacts from industries such as large-scale agricultural and frac sand mines were among the most common topics presented to Regional Administrator Kaplan.

Midwest Environmental Advocates sponsored this EPA listening session along with partner organizations such as the Sierra Club - John Muir Chapter and River Alliance. MEA attended the session to urge EPA leaders to continue prioritizing their response to the Petition for Corrective Action that we filed in fall 2015 along with 16 Wisconsin water champions. The Petition sheds light on a laundry list of ways in which Wisconsin’s water pollution permitting (WPDES) program does not comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

Our Executive Director Kim Wright also discussed the non-partisan government audit that came out not long after the PCA was filed, confirming deficiencies with inspection, enforcement and other important components of the WPDES Program. The response of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to that audit is expected on November 18th.

The 16 citizen champions behind the PCA were well represented by Petitioner Jim Swanson, who spoke to his experience as a resident of Dunn County, with lakes that annually experience algal blooms that EPA ranks as among worst in the nation. Jim also spoke to his history as a conservationist with the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and how his hunting, fishing and recreation-based passions are negatively impacted by declining water quality in the State. Wisconsin Public Radio also spoke with Jim.

Although the 2016 election results were not a focus of discussion at the listening session, many citizen testimonials spoke to the need for EPA to more extensively respond to lack of political will at the DNR to prioritize resolution of water quality, quantity, and public health problems. Now more than ever, it is critically important for the public to support the dedicated, unbiased scientists and program-level staff at all levels of government and to encourage our elected officials to continue funding and otherwise supporting our natural resource protection agencies. As one attendee rightly said, these issues are “bigger than Wisconsin.”

It’s significant and positive that attendees at the listening session included at least a handful of representatives and members of the Dairy Business Association. These testimonials spoke to the need for Wisconsinites to “come together” and stop “vilifying” large farms as the cause of the State’s water quality problems. It’s certainly the case that blame and finger-pointing often preempt necessary, problem-solving conversations between parties with different viewpoints. That said, DBA testimonials also spoke to “nonsense regulations” that apply to Wisconsin’s large farms. That characterization minimizes the fact that citizens often need to turn to those regulations for protection in times of crisis—when their children are sickened by tainted water or when a family stops being able to use and enjoy their home and property.

While the listening session highlighted the need for more collaboration and productive dialogue between Wisconsinites, most importantly the event came at a time where residents of our state badly need direct interaction with DNR staff.

Overall, the crowded listening session showed that Wisconsin cares about clean, safe water. The EPA’s interaction with the audience showed that both the DNR and the EPA will continue to play a crucial role in protecting our State’s precious water resources.

For more media coverage of the forum, please visit: Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Wisconsin Public Radio, WQOW-TV ABC-18, WEAU-TV NBC-13.