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MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Large livestock operations will be allowed to draw up their own pollution permits under a reorganization plan the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced Wednesday.
The agency has been working on reorganizing since July 2015 to deal with a growing workload and the state's tight budget constraints. DNR officials issued a vague news release Wednesday announcing the plan, calling it a "strategic realignment effort."
The most contentious aspect of the plan will allow large livestock operations to draw up their own permits for projects such as creating manure lagoons and spreading manure. Manure and other pollutants contaminating groundwater has been a problem in Wisconsin for years. Kewaunee County is trying to deal with a groundwater pollution issue that some environmentalists say is caused by large-scale farms. A study released last year found that 34 percent of wells tested in the county had unsafe levels of nitrates and bacteria.
A state audit in June found the DNR wasn't following its own policies for policing pollution from large farms and wastewater plants. It also found that the agency had been extending permits without review for years and that staffers lacked time to thoroughly monitor large livestock operations. Environmental groups were outraged by the findings.
The news release made no mention of allowing farms to draft their own permits, though DNR officials and Secretary Cathy Stepp discussed that aspect in interviews with the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. They stressed the agency would still decide whether to approve or deny the permits and that the agency's standards wouldn't change. The move would free up more time for staff to conduct compliance checks in the field, they said.
Amber Meyer-Smith, government relations director for environmental group Clean Wisconsin, didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The overall reorganization plan will affect about 5 percent of the DNR's 2,549 full-time employees, according to the news release. Changes will range from position descriptions, reporting structure and division assignments as the agency moves from seven operational units to five, including Forestry; Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Environmental Management; Internal Services; and External Services.
Nineteen researchers now located in the Bureau of Science Services will join other programs as well as a new Office of Applied Sciences. A new bureau will focus on real estate and property planning and staff working on water-related sediment cleanups will be combined with staff working on soil cleanups, the Journal Sentinel reported.
All DNR law enforcement personnel will be consolidated within the Bureau of Law Enforcement, which will add 33 positions to the current 137 spots.
The news release said the plan will be implemented in phases with final changes anticipated by early 2018.