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Fines assessed to companies that pollute Wisconsin air and water dropped sharply in 2015. 

Fines paid by Wisconsin polluters fell to a 30-year low in 2015 in the latest sign that enforcement of laws protecting the environment has been on the wane in recent years, according to data released Wednesday by a statewide conservation group.

The downward trend means businesses that pollute have gained a competitive edge over those that spend money to avoid discharging harmful chemicals into air and water, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation said.

“I’ve never seen a drop-off of that much in one year,” said federation executive director George Meyer, a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary who also served 12 years as the agency’s enforcement division chief.

“I know the governor (Scott Walker) makes the argument that this shows things are getting better and people are complying with laws, but you can’t explain an 88 percent decrease in one year that way, or the long-term pattern,” Meyer said.

A DNR spokesman said the department’s stance on enforcement hasn’t changed, but it is hiring staff to investigate environmental violations.

Walker, a Republican, campaigned for his first term in 2010 on a platform that included criticism of the DNR as too slow to issue pollution permits to businesses and too tough in enforcing laws. Republicans who gained control of the Legislature in 2011 joined business lobbyists in renewing similar complaints this year as they cut DNR staffing and relaxed regulations.

The wildlife federation released data that is compiled annually by the DNR to track fines obtained by the state Department of Justice through court action, Meyer said.

The DNR investigates pollution violations and turns the cases over to DOJ lawyers if informal negotiations with polluters fail to produce agreements on penalties and actions needed to prevent more problems.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson referred questions to the DNR, which said DOJ was best equipped to explain decreases in the settlement amounts.DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said he didn’t know why fines had dwindled, but he said Attorney General Brad Schimel makes sure all DNR referrals are thoroughly reviewed.

“The total amount of penalties does not tell the full story about how DOJ ensures environmental violations are resolved and compliance is gained,” Koremenos said. “DOJ attorneys work diligently to do what’s best for Wisconsin.”

The fines fell to $306,834 in 2015, according to the data. The average for the last 10 years was about seven times that amount — $2.2 million. The last time so little was collected was 1986 when the amount was $54,882.

Compared to the 10-year average, 2015 numbers showed sharp drops in fines for air pollution, spills of farm animal waste, improper discharges of sewage, storm water and toxic chemicals.

The year Walker took office, 2011, the state settled cases for $2.6 million in fines. The number dropped to less than $1 million the next year and rose slightly for the subsequent two years. The financial penalties from 2012 to 2015 were below the 10-year average.

“As with any enforcement program the goal has always been zero violations through a three-prong approach — education, enforcement and problem solving,” DNR spokesman Andrew Savagian said.

Meyer said he obtained the data on fines from an experienced DNR employee who wanted to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions from officials who don’t want the numbers publicized. A DNR spokesman said the department didn’t dispute the numbers.

In previous years, the DNR has disclosed declining numbers of enforcement actions, and said the agency works informally to remedy pollution before seeking penalties. But Meyer and another former secretary, Scott Hassett, have maintained that’s nothing new. Staff limitations have always meant the DNR could seek penalties in only the very worst incidents. Meyer was appointed by Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson. Hassett was appointed by Democratic former Gov. Jim Doyle.

Meyer said it may be that the agency isn’t conducting as many inspections of businesses to check for pollution.

“One of the key questions is, are they inspecting facilities?” Meyer said. “If you don’t look, you won’t find.”

It wasn’t clear if staffing changes played a role in the drop-off in fines. Koremenos said he couldn’t immediately say if Schimel has changed DOJ environmental unit staffing.

The DNR has seen its full-time staff shrink 15 percent from 1995 to 2015, and they are assessing employee responsibilities and reorganizing in response to calls from Walker and Republican lawmakers to focus on a “core mission” that hasn’t been publicly defined.

As of Wednesday all DNR enforcement specialist positions were filled and the department was in the process of hiring one more, plus seven investigators to handle criminal and complex civil violations, Savagian said. But he wasn’t able to specify why the hiring was happening.Conservation groups have challenged the DNR in court repeatedly over allegations that lax pollution permits have led to tainted drinking water and dried up lakes and streams. The agency is seeking to address 75 deficiencies in enforcement of clean water laws listed in a 2011 letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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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.