Wisconsin’s overworked pollution regulators failed to follow their own policies for dealing with violators of water pollution laws more than 90 percent of the time, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau said on Friday.

The bureau’s 124-page report on state Department of Natural Resources enforcement of laws to protect public waterways from industrial and municipal wastewater said agency actions generally declined from 2005 to 2015, a period when elected officials have reduced agency staffing.

Notices of violations were issued to polluters in just 33 of 558 instances serious enough for such citations under DNR policies, the audit found.

And the DNR inspected 17 - or 6.5 percent - of the state’s large livestock farms, called concentrated animal feeding operations, to ensure they were complying with the law after reissuing their pollution permits instead of before, a violation of state and federal law.

Auditors found that overburdened DNR staff didn’t have time to fully review annual compliance reports filed by polluters. Only 36 of 1,900 CAFO reports were electronically recorded as received.

“The report provides a pretty damning assessment,” said Sarah Geers, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, a public interest law firm that has challenged the DNR to improve its performance. “A lot needs to be done.”

The audit report examined how quickly the DNR renewed 5-year pollution permits, which are legal documents that establish limits for wastewater discharges, and found 41 incidents, or 2.9 percent of the total in which it took the DNR six or more years to renew an expired permit.

Polluters continue to operate under the conditions of the previous permit until a new one is issued, which means they may not be subject to new limits that are set based on the latest scientific research, said Tressie Kamp, a staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates.

“The longer that permittees are allowed to operate under expired water pollution permits, the greater the risk that these facilities are able to discharge pollutants of a type and/or at a level that is no longer deemed appropriate by the federal Clean Water Act,” Kamp said.

The group has petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force the DNR to enforce the federal Clean Water Act or to take over enforcement duties from the state.

DNR spokesman James Dick said the audit report was “largely consistent” with the department’s ongoing efforts.

“The DNR has recognized many of the issues identified by the audit bureau, and has already, or is in the process of, establishing systems to address them,” Dick said in a statement.

After conducting a legal review of state water discharge protections, the EPA in 2011 identified 75 deficiencies in state laws and administrative rules. Among those were 64 related to industrial, municipal and CAFO permit holders the audit reviewed. Of those, 33 had been addressed by DNR as of April and the remaining 31 were in the process of being addressed, the audit bureau said.

The EPA has previously acknowledged that the DNR was working on the problems, but the federal agency hasn’t said whether it has confirmed that any of the 75 deficiencies has been fixed.

The DNR spokesman on Friday said the agency adopted six of eight planned regulatory rules packages designed to account for many of the 75 deficiencies.

Dick said enforcement activity related to the state’s growing number of industrial farms, or CAFOs, has increased from 2005 to 2015, and only 24 percent of municipal and industrial pollution permits applications were considered backlogged as of April, down from over 35 percent four years earlier.

“DNR consistently meets its inspection commitments agreed to with EPA,” Dick said. “In addition, DNR appreciates audit report finding that pointed out DNR performs more frequent inspections of CAFOs with previous violations - an example of how staff time is prioritized to focus our inspection efforts.”

A spokesman for the water program in the EPA’s Chicago regional office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

A member of the Legislature’s Republican majority who has taken a leading role on environmental issues said he was troubled that DNR wasn’t following its own policies on issuing notices of violation to polluters.

“This finding is troubling and I am awaiting further explanation from the agency on how they plan to address inspections and noncompliance,” Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay said in a statement.

“In addition, I am asking the Legislative Audit Bureau to analyze the amount of funding it would take to supplement the DNR’s wastewater permitting staff and program operations to address the issues identified in the audit,” said Cowles, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee, which requested the review of DNR pollution regulation.

In 2015 Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature cut the DNR’s two-year budget, and department executives are currently conducting an internal “realignment” study to allocate staff to the agency’s “core mission” at the urging of top elected officials and in anticipation of further reductions in 2017.

Walker and legislators haven’t said publicly what the core mission should be, but in the 2010 campaign season that brought Republicans to power, Walker promised to tame an “out-of-control” DNR, saying that regulators and scientists had slowed job growth.

Full-time staffing at the agency has been dwindling for decades.

Geers said the Legislature could increase permit fees to pay for more inspections, enforcement and permitting staff and to speed the writing of rules to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act.

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