Environmental Assessments and Protections May Be Eliminated in Proposed DNR Rule Changes
By Sarah Williams, Dennis Grzezinski and Stacy Harbaugh
In his Political Environment blog post (May 8 - "With its new 'chamber-of-commerce mentality,' Wisc. DNR looks to weaken core mission"), James Rowen describes some of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ proposed changes to Wisconsin administrative code NR 150. Midwest Environmental Advocates submitted comments about our concerns earlier this month. In addition to Rowen’s blog, we’ve got more to say below, including links to what we told the DNR.
What is NR 150 and what are the proposed changes?
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is poised to make substantial changes to administrative code NR 150. The purpose of the NR 150 rules is to assure that the agency considers short- and long-term environmental and cumulative effects of policies on the quality of the environment. These environmental analyses are required under the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act. The DNR’s proposed changes may put our natural resources at risk and reduce transparency and opportunities for public input.
How NR 150 relates to factory farms in Wisconsin
The largest industrial farms, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), present a growing environmental and public health concern for Wisconsin citizens. We have seen more applications for permits for very large industrial animal production operations, with 5,000 to over 10,000 cows at a single operation. Certain areas of the state are inundated with these CAFOs in such concentration that odor, air pollution and water pollution are affecting health and quality of life. The great need for water from these facilities, largely met through high-capacity wells, is also affecting private well owners and depleting surface waters. Without environmental assessments, it is unclear how the DNR will evaluate these impacts and how the DNR will make its analyses available to the public.
Beyond CAFOs – how will water be impacted by these changes?
Without an environmental assessment, citizens will not be able to evaluate and comment on the information considered or not considered by the DNR in approving one of the greatest challenges to our drinking and surface waters: high-capacity wells. High-capacity wells are those that have a capacity to draw more than 100,000 gallons of groundwater per day. These wells are often used for CAFOs, agricultural production, mining and to supply public drinking water. The increasing number of these wells across the state is having a significant impact on our groundwater resources and is affecting wetlands, trout streams and other surface waters that provide recreational and life-sustaining benefits to Wisconsin citizens.
The following are some of Midwest Environmental Advocates’ main concerns about the proposed changes to the DNR’s environmental analyses:
This rule change will result in less transparency, reduced opportunities for public involvement, and weakened analysis of the full range of environmental impacts of DNR actions.
The rule changes get rid of environmental assessments and instead presume that the existing regulatory framework provides a sufficient “equivalent analysis” of the environmental impacts of the proposed action.
The types of permits that would no longer be required to have an environmental assessment under the new rules would include:
Water pollution permits for the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES permits) for large, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs);
High capacity well approval; and
Air pollution permits for new or modified facilities.
Doing away with environmental assessments will limit the public’s opportunity to review and comment on the impacts that the DNR considered or failed to consider associated with a proposed action.
It’s important to note that the WPDES permitting process for CAFOs does not provide an equivalent analysis of environmental impacts because that process addresses only impacts to waters of the state. It does not consider the impact that a permitted CAFO has on air quality, the cumulative impacts of other approvals associated with the WPDES permit, or the cumulative impacts of many permitted CAFOs.
These rule changes would be inconsistent with the purposes of the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA). The Act requires the DNR to explain to the public the impacts of the proposed action and the alternatives that were evaluated. The Act is meant to enable citizens, farmers, business and community leaders as well as DNR staff, to be aware of a wide range of environmental impacts and to be able to comment on those issues.
Finally, the proposed rule change could result in an increase in litigation from all affected because the changes are inconsistent with the statutory language and with a long history of legal decisions requiring agencies to “substantially follow” federal regulations interpreting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the federal counterpart to WEPA. This will increase uncertainty, cost, and delay for regulated parties, the DNR and the public.
Midwest Environmental Advocates' comments on NR 150 changes submitted to the DNR (with exhibits A - Richfield Dairy Environmental Analysis; B - Kinnard Farms WPDES permit comments; C - Merry Water permit fact sheet)