Green Guide

DNR: Large farms could write own permit applications

Posted 9:38 p.m. Wednesday
Updated 9:40 p.m. Wednesday

— Large farms could hire experts to craft their pollution and construction permit applications under a reorganization plan the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced Wednesday.

The agency has been working on reorganizing since July 2015 to deal with a growing workload and the state's tight budget constraints. DNR officials issued a news release Wednesday announcing the plan, calling it a "strategic realignment effort," but the release contains very few details.

The cornerstone of the plan would allow concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, to hire qualified consultants to craft applications for manure handling and construction permits. The idea, DNR Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede said, is to reduce the back-and-forth DNR staff currently engage in with farmers to get their applications up to speed, freeing up staff to perform more frequent permit compliance checks in the field. Developers looking to perform shore stabilization work and pond construction also would be allowed to use consultants to help craft their permit applications as well.

"They're writing the information to help inform that permit," Thiede said.

The plan mirrors an approach DNR has used for wetland building permit applications for a decade, in which engineers and other consultants are allowed to help craft developers' applications, said Jeffrey Voltz, deputy administrator of the DNR's external services division. The DNR plans to speak with stakeholders in the coming months to determine what qualifications CAFO and shore consultants will need.

A state audit in June found the DNR wasn't following its own policies for policing pollution from large farms and wastewater plants. It also found that the agency had been extending permits without review for years and that staffers lacked time to thoroughly monitor large livestock operations. Environmental groups were outraged by the findings.

Amber Meyer Smith, government relations director for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, said it's unclear how allowing outside consultants help with permit applications might change things for both farms and the DNR.

"There are certainly efficiency measures included in today's announcement, but a lot of questions remain," Meyer Smith said.

Paul Zimmerman, executive director of government relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, said the move would reduce duplicative work for farms and the DNR.

"You're hiring a licensed professional to do his or her job," Zimmerman said. "Those licenses have to mean something. The idea is to free up staff time."

The overall reorganization plan will affect about 5 percent of the DNR's 2,549 full-time employees, according to the news release. Changes will range from position descriptions, reporting structure and division assignments as the agency moves from seven operational units to five, including Forestry; Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Environmental Management; Internal Services; and External Services.

The Bureau of Science Services' remaining 19 researchers will join other programs as well as a new Office of Applied Sciences. A new bureau will focus on real estate and property planning and staff working on water-related sediment cleanups will be combined with staff working on soil cleanups. Thiede said the move would allow managers to more closely monitor researchers' work.

The state budget Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed last year eliminated 19 researchers from the Bureau of Science Services. The scientists had been working on a number of politically charged issues, including climate change, pollution and mining. Democrats blasted the cuts as political payback.

The reorganization plan also calls for shifting 33 ranger positions into warden positions. Thiede said rangers spend little time on law enforcement. The move would still leave more than 100 rangers in state parks but they wouldn't have law enforcement credentials. Some of the 33 rangers whose positions would disappear could apply for warden jobs or elect to stay in the parks without law enforcement powers.

The news release said the plan will be implemented in phases with final changes anticipated by early 2018. Thiede said some portions of it may require legislative approval.

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This story has been updated to correct that the DNR's plan would allow farms to hire consultants to create their permit applications, not write permits.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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