James Rowen
Op Ed

EPA Hires Third Ex-Walker DNR Staffer

Regional EPA office in Chicago embraces Walker staffers, philosophy .

By - Apr 23rd, 2019 05:22 pm
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Six Mile Creek. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources .Six Mile Creek. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources .

Six Mile Creek. Photo from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources .

Team Walker and its reach pops up again.

It became clear after Democrats ousted Wisconsin’s GOP Governor Scott Walker and Attorney General Brad Schimel in November that secretly-crafted 11th-hour bills were to be sent quickly for Walker’s OK to maintain Republican/business-sector control despite the outcome of the election.

While those actions are being litigated, I’ve noticed another effective but less-visible method of maintaining and even expanding Walkerism: the growing cluster of key Walker-era DNR officials ensconced in senior positions at the US EPA’s regional office in Chicago which covers Wisconsin and several other Great Lakes state.

Trump’s selection of Walker’s long-time DNR Secretary and key corporate cudgel Cathy Stepp as Administrator of the EPA’s six-state Great Lakes-area regional office has been reported, and her selection of her former DNR deputy Kurt Thiede as Chief of Staff was also noted by media.

But here’s an update: the Chicago EPA office has confirmed that another former DNR official – – Russ Rasmussen – – is now on Stepp’s EPA team as “Special Adviser on Water.”

That’s especially interesting, as the DNR under Stepp was so disinterested in water policy that formal action had to be filed to force the agency to comply with 75 efficiencies in water management that the EPA prior to Stepp’s arrival had ordered, as I wrote:

The public interest law firm Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a Petition for Corrective action, PCA), in 2015 with the EPA to force the DNR into compliance with the Clean Water Act on 75 matters which the Walker administration knew about but failed to repair under Cathy Stepp’s tenure as Walker’s DNR Secretary for almost seven years.

And during the Walker-Stepp-Thiede-Rassmussen years, the number of polluted streams had doubled while state groundwater was alternately gifted to special interests or allowed to contaminate rural wells, kitchen taps and even baby formula, From the Minnesota Star Tribune comes this heartbreaking, infuriating story about the all-too-familiar water quality issues in rural Wisconsin’s Central Sands:

Celina Stewart, a young mother in the tiny town of Nekoosa, lost an infant daughter to a fatal brain malformation that has been associated with high levels of nitrate, a fertilizer byproduct found in the community’s drinking water. Her tragedy led to a community well testing program this year, which found that 40 percent of the homes had nitrate concentrations that, like hers, were far above the legal limit.

‘We should be able to go to our faucet and turn it on and safely drink water from our well and not worry about getting sick or dying,’ Stewart wrote to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Rasmussen admitted in a Journal Sentinel story that the DNR wasn’t adequately protecting drinking water:

A Department of Natural Resources official acknowledged Wednesday that the system of spreading manure in certain regions of Wisconsin isn’t adequately protecting drinking water supplies and said the state will recommend new application methods in coming months…

The agency for now isn’t suggesting new regulations, which would mandate limits on how much manure could be applied on land where animal waste and other pollutants are polluting groundwater supplies, [Russ] Rasmussen said.

Instead, he said, his agency, the state agriculture department and other groups are developing voluntary recommendations… especially in northeast Wisconsin, where water and manure are known to flow quickly through fractured bedrock and potentially taint the groundwater.

Rasmussen also warned his water staffers after the 2015-2017 Walker budget proposed major reductions in their division that, on office time, they should keep their objections to themselves:

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources water division administrator Russell “Russ” Rasmussen sent his staff a “Hello Water Colleagues” memo on February 8th about “the Governor’s budget proposal [that] is now our DNR budget proposal” that ended with a warning:

An additional note – you may have your own personal feelings about provisions in the budget; however, the Governor’s budget proposal is now our DNR budget proposal. You are entitled to your own opinions and you may want to express them. That is your right. It is important, however, to keep your work and any political activities strictly separated. Any media contacts about the budget should be referred to Bill Cosh who is the department’s spokesperson on the budget.

Work rules prohibit use of any state equipment – phone, copy machines, e-mail or computers – for political activities, of which lobbying is part.  In addition, you cannot engage in lobbying activities on work time or in the work place, and you cannot use your work title and affiliation with DNR when talking to legislators about your personal feelings about a legislative decision. Here is a link to the DNR Manual Code on political activity…

Bottom line: bad water IS the Walker legacy.

I cannot think of a worse group of people to advise on, manage or implement water or any environmental policy in Wisconsin or the Great Lakes region, but there they are in US EPA District 5 having helped Walker embed his ‘chamber of commerce mentality‘ across the Wisconsin public’s land, air and water.

James Rowen, a former journalist and mayoral staffer in Milwaukee and Madison, writes a regular blog, The Political Environment.

Categories: Environment, Politics

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