For close to 40 years, George Meyer has been at the forefront of Wisconsin’s environmental policy and conservation efforts.
Since ending his 30-plus-year career in 2003 with the state Department of Natural Resources — eight as the department secretary — he has been executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, a sporting organization that advocates for public policies protecting fish and wildlife habitats.
Meyer always has been vocal on issues concerning the environment, stressing he and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation don’t care if someone has an “R or a D” behind their name.
In the wake of news that environmental enforcement by the DNR dropped to a 12-year low in 2011 and that an egregious waste violator was let off the hook, Meyer sat down with The Capital Times to discuss what he says are systemic problems in the DNR that have reached a peak under the current administration.
The Capital Times: Let’s start with Wisconsin State Journal reporter Ron Seely’s investigation showing DNR case referrals to the Department of Justice dropped from 65 to 21, a 67 percent reduction; enforcement conferences dropped from 280 to 196, a 30 percent reduction; and notices of violations dropped from 516 to 233, a 55 percent reduction, in 2011 compared to the prior 11-year average. What was your reaction when you heard those facts?
George Meyer: I knew we were looking at very dramatic changes. Those numbers indicate a few different things are happening. There are not only fewer cases being referred to the DOJ, but there are fewer conferences being held (where the alleged violator and DNR staff work together to bring the company back into compliance) and fewer violation notices are being sent out. These are all big changes.
CT: Why does that matter?
GM: What you will see over time is an increase in violations of the laws. There are two purposes for having an environmental enforcement program: deter people from violating the law and keeping a business and its competitors in line.
CT: So having a strong environmental enforcement program is good for the state and for businesses?
GM: Yes. Most businesses want the DNR to have a strong enforcement program. It works to their benefit.
CT: That’s something you don’t hear every day.
GM: Look, a company that belongs to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is not going to admit that. But the truth is most companies want a level playing field. If you’re complying with the law and it costs you 5 percent more in terms of what your product is going to cost, you want to know that everyone is incurring that cost, too.
CT: I think it’s fair to say the current administration believes less regulation and enforcement is good for business.
GM: I don’t think the current administration is factoring in that it’s good for business to have a fair and effective enforcement program.
CT: Is this at the heart of the philosophical shift people say is occurring under Gov. Scott Walker’s administration?
GM: Yes. This administration did not invent the concept of working with businesses in a positive manner. We emphasized that when I was secretary. I’m sure secretaries Matt Frank, Darrell Bazzell and Scott Hassett also did.
But here’s what that should mean: You work with companies to reduce unnecessary regulations that don’t lead to an improvement in the environment, you get unnecessary regulations out of the way, and then you help them figure out how to comply with the remaining regulations in the most economically efficient way. That is what being friendly to businesses should be.
If a company causes a significant violation of the law or commits fraud, you take that “being friendly to business” hat off. Companies don’t get breaks if they cross the line.
CT: Let’s talk about the Herr case. Herr Environmental’s records show it may have spread human waste at three times the level allowed by its state permit near 40 drinking wells and 30 homes in Jefferson County. The state is refusing to test the wells for contamination. If you were still the DNR secretary, would you test the wells?
GM: Yes. I think that would have happened under any other previous secretary, Republican or Democratic.
CT: Why aren’t the wells being tested under DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp?
GM: I think under this administration, if a business complains, they can get their way.
CT: Herr ended up paying a minimal fine for spreading raw sewage rather than the case being referred to the DOJ. It was also discovered Scott Gunderson, a former state lawmaker and recent DNR appointee, handled the case and had received campaign donations from Herr in the past. Rep. Joel Kleefisch, the Republican lawmaker whose district includes Herr, also attended a DNR conference committee on the company’s behalf. What do you find most troubling about these facts?
GM: Put yourself in the position of the DNR staffers at this meeting. These conference committees are routine things. You hold them about 15 or 20 times a year.
Now all of a sudden, you have the number three person in the department, Scott Gunderson, plus an Assembly leader whose wife is the lieutenant governor show up. Then you find out later Herr had spoken with Stepp before the meeting. The deck was stacked in the company’s favor before the meeting even started.
I think the employees did well under those circumstances. It’s not what they would have done normally. This case should have been referred to the DOJ, not discussed in an enforcement hearing.
That was unfair to the employees. It was unfair to other septic companies that comply with the law and it was unfair to the neighbors that are next to the regulated individual.
It was an unprecedented overuse of authority.
CT: Do you think it is an isolated case?
GM: If I believed it was an isolated case I would tell people to get over it. Mistakes happen. But when you put all this stuff together, there is something very wrong with the agency. It needs correction. It didn’t start with this administration but it clearly reached a high point in reduction of environmental enforcement. I think you’re going to hear more stories about more situations.