In the midst of a scandal over allowing a corporation to skirt punishment for records showing it dumped large amounts of human sewage sludge on land, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has now refused to require the corporation, Herr Environmental, to test for contamination of nearby wells.
Investigator Says Case Is One of "the Worst"; the Corp's Leaders Donated to Lt. Gov. Kleefisch and Others
The company is owned by Jody and Rich Herr, who previously made campaign donations to Rep. Scott Gunderson, the right-hand man of DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp. Jody Herr has also donated to Governor Scott Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and others. After the 2010 elections, she made three separate donations to the Lt. Governor in 2011, including a $1000 donation to her in September, and one $100 donation to Rep. Joel Kleefisch, who was elected to represent the area where the sewage sludge was dumped. At that time, Rebecca Kleefisch was not yet subject to the coming recall election.
In 2009, Herr Environmental, a waste hauler, dumped human sewage on land in Jefferson County, the county due east of the state's capitol. The Herrs live in Oconomowoc in Waukesha County, another county over. The land where Herr spread the waste is adjacent to 30 homes, five farms, and at least 40 wells, according to an investigation by the Wisconsin State Journal.
The lead investigator for the DNR, David Bohla, told the State Journal the case was one of "the worst" he had investigated, with the corporation providing a series of conflicting and suspicious records about the quantity of sewage that was dumped. Given the seriousness of the potential contamination of people's drinking water and the way the records seemed to be created, the investigators believed the case would be referred to the Department of Justice. Instead, the Walker administration's DNR appointees intervened and asked local prosecutors to settle the case for the minimum fine available for issuing five citations, for a total of $4,338.
Herr Environmental's Vice President, Todd Stair, has claimed excessive sewage sludge was not dumped but that it was purportedly a paperwork error that showed the wrong amount of sludge dumped during an inspection of the company's records. Stair, his wife Peggy, and Jody Herr have all made campaign contributions to state Sen. Neil Kedzie who was elected to represent the town where Herr Environmental's records show it dumped the sewage sludge. But under recent changes to electoral maps, the site would be located in the Senate district currently represented by Scott Fitzgerald. Richard Herr has previously contributed to the campaign of Scott's brother, State Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald.
The state official who steered the case away from a DOJ investigation, Gunderson, claimed he forgot that the Herr family had donated to his campaigns for office and then claimed their past financial support would not have influenced him to handle the case differently. The case was supposed to be evaluated by Matt Maroney who asked Gunderson to handle it because Maroney said he knew one of the corporate officers at Herr Environmental. In fact, according to the State Journal's investigation, Maroney had previously intervened on behalf of Rich Herr asserting that the amount of sewage sludge dumped was just an innocent mistake.
Residents Want Wells Tested, Walker DNR Refuses to Require Testing Be Paid by Herr
Since the DNR investigation, dubbed "Sewergate," was exposed, residents living near the fields have asked that their water be tested for potential contamination. One of the area wells had shown contamination of coliform bacteria when it was tested last fall. Another concern for residents is high levels of nitrates in the drinking water, which can lead to "blue baby syndrome," a deadly condition for infants.
This month, however, Walker's DNR appointee, Stepp, told residents that the potential for groundwater contamination was "relatively low" and that the company would not be ordered to pay for private well testing. Stepp is a former Republican Senator and was an outspoken critic of the DNR before her appointment. Walker had chosen her for the position noting that she fit a "chamber-of-commerce mentality" that is part of his vision for regulatory agencies.
Sewergate Becomes Part of the Fitzgerald Recall Debate
The way the DNR has handled this case was an issue in the recall election debate between state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and his opponent Lori Compas this past week. With the recent redistricting map changes, whomever wins this Senate seat would represent the Town of Concord where the corporation's records indicate the sewage sludge was dumped.
In addressing the issue, Compas argued that there is a problem with political appointments to the DNR. "The DNR secretary should be appointed by the Natural Resources Board," she said. "I think this is just an example of politics getting in the way of enforcement."
Fitzgerald, the Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader and Walker's most visible ally in the legislature, said at the debate that the company should be punished and that, "Not only should the corporation pay to have the wells tested but I think that once again there should be a full review on why this company is permitted."
The Other Kleefisch Intervenes in the Case and Pushes for Reduced Fines
Meanwhile, the records of the DNR's investigator indicate that the embattled Lt. Governor's husband, Rep. Joel Kleefisch, had intervened in the case by trying to limit the punishment of the corporation whose owners gave him a hundred dollar donation last year in addition to the more than $2000 in donations from Jody Herr to his wife last year. As reported by the State Journal, Joel Kleefisch pressured the DNR to reduce the fines against the company and he reportedly stressed the Walker administration's corporate agenda, saying, "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?" According to investigator Bolha's notes, Kleefisch even asked Gunderson to intervene with the local prosecutors that the case was sent to (instead of the Department of Justice) in order to reduce the fines of Herr Environmental even further.
State Democrats have called for an investigation into the DNR's handling of the case, and editorial boards across the state have criticized how Walker's appointees have handled the sewage dumping case, according to a statement from Rep. Brett Hulsey:
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "DNR should have taken a tougher stance with firm," "Walker's DNR Ignores What's Good for the State," "Handling of septic hauler case outrageous DNR scrutinized," "Environmental inspections drop in Walker's first year"
Wisconsin State Journal: "Stepp's DNR deserves scrutiny"
Appleton Post Crescent: "DNR damages its own reputation"
Sheboygan Press: "DNR's gears malfunctioned in Herr's case"
Cap Times: "It's Time to Investigate Walker's Sewergate"
Racine Journal Times: "Waste-spreading needs tougher DNR scrutiny"
This is not the first environmental scandal involving the Walker administration and its political allies. Walker also pushed for a controversial mining bill; Scott Fitzgerald, who spearheaded the bill in the Senate, admitted that Gogebic Taconite, the out-of-state mining corporation, helped craft the bill. According to the State Journal's investigation, enforcement by the DNR has dropped since Walker came to office with its "self-regulation" approach to leaving corporations to police themselves and last year marked the lowest level of enforcement actions in the past 12 years.