Dorn Creek sediment

EPA regional administrator Cathy Stepp will recuse herself from decisions about Wisconsin's authority to enforce clean water laws. Above, water quality specialist Mike Sorge fights his way through muck while helping Dane County study pollution in Dorn Creek sediment northwest of Lake Mendota. 

DANE COUNTY

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Cathy Stepp won’t participate in federal decisions about Wisconsin pollution disputes that remain after her seven years as the state’s top air and water quality regulator, the agency said Thursday.

When Stepp was running the state Department of Natural Resources, the EPA’s regional office in Chicago issued a list of 75 Wisconsin water protection deficiencies and began investigating whether the state could be counted on to properly enforce the Clean Water Act.

In December, Stepp was placed in charge of the EPA region that oversees Wisconsin, raising questions about whether the regional office would keep up the pressure that Stepp had said was “strangling” her DNR.

The EPA on Thursday said Stepp is recusing herself from its review of a citizen request that the state be stripped of Clean Water Act authority if it didn’t improve its performance. The agency made the statement after a conservation group publicly challenged Stepp, but the EPA said she made the decision previously.

“As is the practice in every transition, Regional Administrator Cathy Stepp immediately consulted with EPA’s ethics counsel and decided to recuse herself in this matter,” an EPA spokeswoman said.

In a later statement, the EPA said Stepp is also recusing herself from other matters but a complete list hadn’t been compiled. A document putting all of it in writing is being prepared, the spokeswoman said.

Stepp left the DNR in August for a post in Kansas. On Dec. 19, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced she would take the top job in Chicago overseeing Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Stepp’s recusal “decision was not influenced by prodding and petitions from any special interest group,” the spokeswoman said after Midwest Environmental Advocates released a letter it sent Stepp cautioning her against potential conflicts of interest.

MEA attorney Tressie Kamp said the group has been in regular contact with the EPA about its review of the state’s shortcomings in protecting water quality and hadn’t previously heard about Stepp’s recusal.

“We are heartened to receive this update and look forward to EPA’s continued and impartial review of our petition,” Kamp said. The EPA’s review of state water pollution enforcement was prompted by a MEA petition on behalf of several citizens.

MEA cited federal ethics statutes in a letter Thursday that asked Stepp to remove herself from the review of the state’s Clean Water Act enforcement.

“You ... have expressed an opinion that many of the identified deficiencies were minor and inconsequential, and publicly stated your belief that WDNR has adequately addressed most of the deficiencies,” Kamp and another MEA attorney, Jimmy Parra, stated in the letter to Stepp.

Variety of complaints

The EPA review of DNR covers a variety of complaints including the 75 water protection deficiencies.

The EPA regional office put the state on notice about the problems in 2011, the year Gov. Scott Walker took office and appointed Stepp to make the department friendlier to businesses.

In 2017 — before Stepp took over the EPA region — the Chicago office accepted Wisconsin’s proposals for fixing more than two dozen longstanding weaknesses in water quality regulations.

In a number of cases, President Donald Trump’s administration accepted a lower standard of compliance than former President Barack Obama’s EPA had sought, Kamp said.

Instead of insisting on binding changes to administrative rules and laws, the EPA appeared to accept some DNR proposals that involved the state providing new information, taking an informal step or promising to take some action in the future, Kamp said.

“Which is where we were in 2011,” Kamp said. “Without changing the law or the regulation, you can’t say it’s resolved.”

The number of issues the EPA considers resolved increased to 52 from 21 last year. At the end of 2016, the EPA listed 22 deficiencies as needing actions such as law or administrative rule changes. By Dec. 20, just eight were listed as issues to be resolved by “future actions” — without specifying that a law or rule change was needed.

The EPA didn’t respond to a request for comment about the changes, but Pruitt has said he wants states to take more responsibility for environmental protection.

More Wisconsin

pollution disputes

Several potentially significant issues are pending between the EPA and the state.

The EPA regional office was formally petitioned this year to investigate complaints that the DNR set a policy that ignores important sources of air pollution despite being told by the EPA that the policy was flawed.

The Chicago EPA office also had been seen as a major hurdle for controversial plans Stepp pushed at DNR to shift state efforts to control agricultural pollution to an agency with little enforcement experience.

And Stepp’s EPA regulators will need to decide whether to take enforcement action against Wisconsin polluters as they have in the past when the DNR failed to act.

In recent years, the EPA prodded the DNR into action on widespread contamination of drinking water in Kewaunee County and surrounding areas where the state permits spreading of dairy manure on fields that cover vulnerable aquifers.

Kamp questioned whether DNR employees would continue to press department political appointees for better protection of air and water quality knowing Stepp was in charge of the EPA office that had backed them up in the past.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick said that won’t be an issue if the EPA accepts the state’s most recent attempt to win approval of proposed solutions to the last of the 75 water deficiencies.

“Our work on these 75 issues was completed weeks ago and proposals submitted to EPA,” Dick said. “Nothing more for us to do at this point until we hear from EPA.”

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.