Scott Walker’s DNR Leaves a Stench
Outraged residents of Concord, WI, packed the town hall on Monday night to voice their concerns about the stink raised by Ron Seely’s recent report in the Wisconsin State Journal. Seely was looking into the question of “how the political and business ties of top DNR administrators appointed by Gov. Scott Walker are influencing their handling of law enforcement cases.”
The focus of his story was a 2009 case in which Herr Environmental, Inc., allegedly injected three times the permitted amount of untreated human waste into farm fields in the Town of Concord. The fields border residential neighborhoods where the homes rely on wells for drinking water. DNR investigators raised grave concerns about public health and safety given the proximity of the raw sewage to the wells.
Investigators recommended that the case be forwarded to the Department of Justice so that Herr Environmental could be compelled to pay for the testing of each family’s well, but their suggestion was rejected. Instead, top administrators and political cronies of Richard Herr stepped in to deliver a slap on the wrist, issuing five citations that amounted to $4,338 in fines.
But even that was too much for Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc), husband of Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefish who is facing a recall election June 5. Joel Kleefisch attended an enforcement hearing where, according to a DNR investigator present, he pleaded on behalf of Herr: “In the age of the DNR/Wisconsin Governor being pro-business, why is the DNR giving Herr 5 citations and why can’t 2 or 3 be taken away as a show of good faith?”
About 50 concerned citizens showed up to the meeting Monday night looking for answers to questions about the 2009 violations, and to express worries about the continued application of raw sewage to fields so close to their homes. Town Board Chairman Bill Ingersoll repeatedly urged residents to get their wells tested for nitrates, noting that it was only a $25 test. He downplayed the harmfulness of the nitrates, saying that the amount of nitrogen in the sewage was equivalent to the amount of nitrogen in commercial fertilizer applied to farm fields. Ingersoll offered to pay the cost out of his own pocket to any homeowner who couldn’t afford it.
Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison), member of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, informed Ingersoll that, while nitrates in the water are bad, there are viruses and pathogens in sewage that are far more dangerous. Testing for those is considerably more expensive, and not all labs are equipped to perform the tests. Hulsey also pointed out that nobody should be paying a dime for the tests since it was the illegal actions of Herr that raised concerns to begin with.
Kimberlee Wright of Midwest Environmental Advocates was involved with obtaining all of the DNR investigation records that led to the Wisconsin State Journal article. She attended the meeting and described the potential dangers to public health when scientists aren’t allowed to do their jobs due to political influence at the top. She also encouraged Ingersoll and others to seek copies of the investigative record, since it has all of the information they need to understand the scope and severity of the problem.
Seely’s report noted that the deputy secretary of the DNR, Matt Moroney, recused himself from handling the case because he was “acquainted with another officer of Herr Environmental.” That would be Todd Stair, vice president of Herr Environmental, who also serves on the advisory board of the Metropolitan Builders Association. Moroney was executive director of that organization before he was tapped by Walker-appointed DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp to be her deputy in late 2010. A builder by profession, Stepp has also served as a member and on the board of the Metropolitan Builders Association.
Todd Stair attended the Concord Town Board meeting and walked up to the front of the room to address the crowd. He claimed that “over-application did not occur. Bad record keeping did occur,” and then proceeded to blame the DNR for onerous reporting requirements and late mailings. In describing his recording-keeping error, Stair said that the stack of papers with information on how much sewage went in and out of the holding tanks was “this high,” indicating a height with his hand about five feet above floor level.
“That’s a lot of dumping,” said someone in the room.
Laura Callison, a resident of the subdivision next to the field, complained about the putrid smell in the neighborhood on the days during and after the spreading of sewage, saying that they can’t hang laundry out to dry because the laundry itself “smells like poop” when brought inside.
Stair claimed that Herr Environmental was one of only a handful of sewage waste haulers who have been given “high use” designation by the DNR for the fields on which they are spreading human excrement. David Bolha of the DNR confirmed this, explaining that, “High Use designation allows a septage waste hauler to land-apply septage at a rate up to the needs of the crop planted.” That is, they are only allowed to apply sewage containing the amount of nitrogen that the plants can take up as nutrients. Excess nitrogen not taken up by the plants can convert to nitrates that may leech into the groundwater.
For most crops on most soils, the rate of nitrogen uptake is 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. For the field corn that was to be planted on the fields spread by Herr, the maximum rate is 180 pounds per acre. In order to receive this “High Use” designation by the DNR, Herr Environmental had to conduct a third party site evaluation including additional soil tests and seek approval from the DNR.
They were granted High Use approval after the 2009 citations, but once again ran afoul of the permit in 2010 when they were found to have spread sewage at the rate of 204 pounds per acre. The designation was removed in April 2011 but reinstated in September after another site evaluation was conducted.
Todd Stair complained that the media focus on Herr Environmental’s ongoing violations of DNR permit requirements is politically motivated. When pushed about what he was talking about, Stair said that the timing of this report being released, “one month before the recall,” was suspicious to him.
But the fact is, despite the “I Stand With Walker” sign in front of Herr Environmental’s property and the direct ties of campaign donations and professional association between Richard Herr and Todd Stair on the one hand and politicians Scott Walker, Rebecca Kleefisch, Joel Kleefisch, and top DNR administrators Cathy Stepp, Matt Moroney, and Scott Gunderson on the other, nobody in the room was talking about the recalls. They were there to talk about the threats to the health and safety of their families and neighbors by the reckless spreading of sewage by Herr.
If any political motivations are present, they are those of Herr Environmental and its political allies in the DNR. Concord residents are simply asking that the law be applied in defense of public health and safety. The collusion between Richard Herr and his high-placed supporters to suppress information and reject the recommendations of DNR scientists for stronger enforcement of legal and permit requirements is about as politically motivated as you can get.
(A version of this piece originally appeared at the Wisconsin Citizen's Media Coop website.)
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.
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