2016 Rewind: Another challenging environmental year for Wisconsin

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Wisconsin Republicans began the year pushing bills to roll back protections for air, land and water, while at the same time curtailing the authority of local governments to protect their own natural resources.

“From developing on lake beds to filling in wetlands to taking away local governments’ authority to protect the health of their communities, the Legislature is starting 2016 off with a pretty loud message to Wisconsinites” — that lawmakers “are putting the wishes of big developers, factory farms, frac sand mining companies and other polluting interests above the needs of their constituents,” said Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters executive director Kerry Schumann in January.

The WLCV and other environmental groups spent 2016 trying to halt — or at least attenuate — some of the most damaging assaults ever seen on the state’s air and water. Meanwhile, Republican leaders pushed back through the courts against federal environmental regulations establishing clean air and water standards.

The year was not without wins, however.

Environmentalists successfully fought back when GOP lawmakers sought to privatize municipal water systems in order to give them away to for-profit companies. They petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop an air pollution permit approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for expanding a frac sand mining operation. They lobbied the state Justice Department following a report that the department had shrunk staffing levels in its environmental protection unit to the lowest level in 25 years, resulting in a steep fall in investigations and prosecutions for violations.

Lack of oversight and accountability resulted in a public health crisis in Kewaunee County, where waste from concentrated animal feeding operations contaminated groundwater to such an extent that bacteria and/or high nitrate levels contaminated 30 percent of wells there.

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