Surface Water Pollution

Surface water pollution is still a problem in Northeast Wisconsin despite decades of effort, partly due to industrial and sewage pipe discharges into lakes, rivers and streams. Though wastewater treatment plants have been built and some regulations have been passed, our region's population continues to grow rapidly and industrial production is increasing. Incremental improvements in wastewater treatment are sometimes negated by sheer volume. Couple this with loopholes in the laws and compromised water quality standards, and we still have a lot of work to do to protect public health and wildlife from water pollution.

Key Weaknesses in Water Protection

Political Pressure and Corruption

The Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) has prime responsibility for enforcing the federal Clean Water Act and additional state rules, but is under constant pressure from lawmakers and lobbyists to weaken the rules, or grant variances and exemptions to specific projects or industries. In recent years, the DNR has suffered severe budget and staff cuts, and two dysfunctional reorganizations. While we tend to blame the DNR for environmental problems, the real culprits are the Governor and State Legislators who control the agency. Lack of leadership and campaign corruption are the real problems. (See Campaign Finance Reform)

Compromised Health Standards

Water quality standards, which are used to regulate the discharge of wastewater, are the product of intense negotiations during the state rule-making process. The DNR generally creates Advisory Committees which include lobbyists for many of the sources of the pollution, and these committees are charged with trying to find "consensus" on what the standards should be. This often results in compromises which don't fully protect public health or wildlife. Some regulations never pass because of this political process. Two recent examples are the DNR's proposed Mercury Control Rule, which Republican legislators have blocked from passing, and the PCB Soil Criteria, a 4.5 year effort, which the DNR refused to propose due to pressure from sewage treatment plant operators, paper industries and harbor interests.

Lack of Health Standards

In the United States, a chemical is considered innocent until proven guilty, which means that a company can release a new toxic chemical into Wisconsin's environment (and risk future liabilities), but the Wisconsin DNR can't stop them until they have "adequate" scientific proof of harm from the chemical. It can take years of study (and millions of taxpayers' research dollars) to develop this proof, and then at least 2 to 3 years of DNR Advisory Committee negotiations, but by then serious damage may have happened already.

A recent example is PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ether) which is used as a fire-retardant in carpeting, drapes, computer equipment, foam cushions and a wide array of other common consumer products. PBDE has been measured at high levels in Lake Michigan fish, in mother's breast milk, in wastewater discharges and sewage sludge which is spread throughout Wisconsin. PBDE is believed to have many of the same toxic properties as PCBs and it bioaccumulates up the food chain, just like PCBs. Several European countries have already banned the chemical, and California recently passed a phase-out ban. Wisconsin and the federal government are slow to respond.

Roughly 50,000 chemicals are in common use, but health standards have been developed for only a few hundred, and those are often not comprehensive. Many regulated chemicals have still not been studied for full health effects --- usually only cancer --- not reproductive effects, child development effects or damage to the nervous, immune, respiratory, hormonal or circulatory systems.

Infrequent, Skimpy Monitoring and Inspections

Wisconsin wastewater dischargers are required to take one "Priority Pollutant Scan" only once every five years. This scans for several hundred chemicals known to be toxic, but one sample is not a scientifically or statistically valid survey. Worse yet, the dischargers take their own samples when and where they want to, without supervision from the DNR. When the DNR issues the following five-year permit, most dischargers will be required to take regular samples for only a handful of chemicals, and all the rest will be unknown quantities dumped in our public waterways. Facility inspections are also skimpy, with the DNR visiting major pollution sources only one or two times per year, often giving several days advance notice.

Loopholes in Discharge Rules

Wastewater permit rules contain loopholes which allow acutely toxic and chronically toxic mixing zones in rivers downstream of discharge pipes. In many cases, the industries take advantage of the polluted river conditions by using variances in water quality standards. For example, paper industries on the Fox River are able to discharge PCBs at a concentration equal to the background water concentrations of PCBs, even though this level is a violation of Wisconsin's PCB water quality criteria. In other words, the paper industry is being rewarded for polluting the Fox River with PCBs. Wisconsin's water anti-degradation law is also a farce because it is, in fact, a stepped degradation scheme. Dischargers are generally evaluated for individual immediate effects, rather than combining the analysis of several dischargers and determining their combined and long-term effects.

Contaminated Sediments

Wisconsin faces serious lingering problems due to accumulated toxic chemicals in river and lake sediments, from past pollution. Clean Water Action Council has been fighting 18 years to get the Fox River PCB sediment contamination cleaned up, but in the last seven miles of the river, the DNR and EPA recently chose a cleanup target which will leave the river and bay unhealthy for another 55-100+ years - another example of successful industry lobbying. Worse yet, Wisconsin hasn't learned its lesson. Long-term chemical buildup in sediments is not factored into Wisconsin's discharge laws - the DNR only regulates to achieve concentration standards in the chemicals actually suspended in the water. The rules which control wastewater discharge permits actually treat our rivers as if they are lined with Teflon and lead nowhere, as if chemical pollutants won't "stick" to our river sediments or accumulate at the mouths of our rivers. This must change, or we’ll see PCB-type situations repeated over and over again around Wisconsin.

Who Are Your Local Water Polluters?

Two national websites provide detailed data about pollution sources in local communities. Just type in your zip code and you may find more than you really wanted to know!

The Scorecard, by Environmental Defense

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

For more information:

© Clean Water Action Council

P.O. Box 9144

Green Bay, WI 54308

(920) 421-8885

Office location:
A307 MAC Hall, UW-Green Bay
2420 Nicolet Drive
Green Bay, WI 54311