Wisconsin served as ‘testing ground’ for Scott Pruitt’s war on environmental protection

Scott Walker's former environmental chief now oversees six-state region for the EPA.

FORMER WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES SECRETARY CATHY STEPP AND WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER PROMOTE A DEER HUNT IN THE STATE. (CREDIT: WISCONSIN DNR / Diana Ofosu)
FORMER WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES SECRETARY CATHY STEPP AND WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER PROMOTE A DEER HUNT IN THE STATE. (CREDIT: WISCONSIN DNR / Diana Ofosu)

This is part two of ThinkProgress’ State of Conflicted Interest series.

Over the past seven years, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has overseen a sweeping rollback of state environmental protections, implementing a suite of industry-friendly policies that have since been embraced by the Trump administration at the national level.

Advertisement

During his tenure, Walker has cut back on enforcement, overlooked air and water pollution, and scrubbed climate change information from government websites — all drastic actions Scott Pruitt has also taken at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Now, the person Walker hired to implement his pro-industry vision for environmental regulation has a key leadership position in the EPA. Cathy Stepp, who served under Walker as head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), left last August to become deputy administrator of EPA Region 7 in Kansas City. In mid-December, she was promoted to the top job at EPA Region 5 in Chicago, overseeing the six-state Great Lakes region of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Regional EPA administrators come from varied professional backgrounds. Some have state environmental experience, while others come with management backgrounds but little or no experience working on environmental issues.

Advertisement

“We’ve had a range of administrators in Region 5,” George Czerniak, former director of the air and radiation division for EPA Region 5, told ThinkProgress. “Some have been good and some have been less than that.”

Czerniak, who retired from the EPA in 2016 after nearly 40 years, said a regional administrator “can be pretty powerful,” with the ability to affect the direction and effectiveness of a multi-state environmental protection effort.

Starting with reports in the spring of 2017 that Pruitt wanted to close the Region 5 office, followed by Stepp’s appointment later in the year, Czerniak said he’s heard “morale is not very good at this time.”

“I see an administration coming in and viewing EPA and their staff as the enemy,” he said. “I don’t see a great environmental ethic there.”

According to Pruitt, however, Stepp had the ideal credentials for a regional administrator.

“Cathy Stepp’s experience working as a statewide cabinet official, elected official, and small business owner will bring a fresh perspective to EPA as we look to implement President Trump’s agenda,” Pruitt said in a statement late last year.

Environmental Protection Agency Region 5
Environmental Protection Agency Region 5

Stepp and Walker often stated that their goal was to make the DNR more business-friendly. Stepp told her staff before leaving for the EPA that she planned to bring “some of the reforms we’ve been able to put in place here in Wisconsin to the national stage.”

Advertisement

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 9,000 EPA employees nationwide, chided Pruitt for selecting Stepp to lead the Region 5 office. “Oh boy, here comes another non-scientist who doesn’t acknowledge that climate change is real,” John O’Grady, president of the EPA union, AFGE Council 238, said in a statement last December.

“If her record at Wisconsin DNR is any indication, Ms. Stepp will successfully cut funding for enforcement, along with fines for violations,” O’Grady said.

A model for good and bad

Weakening environmental enforcement efforts was one part of the plan hatched by Walker and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature to undermine institutions in a state known for its progressive values.

The impacts of anti-union legislation signed into law in 2011 and 2012, together with proposed state budget cuts, gave rise to mass protests. The Wisconsin uprising, as it became known, set the stage for Occupy Wall Street and other influential protest movements, and ultimately helped build momentum behind Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) 2016 presidential run.

Wisconsin has a biennial budget, meaning the state budget includes information about how money will be spent for a two-year period. Walker’s first three state budgets cut a total of $59 million from the DNR and eliminated nearly 200 positions, including half of its science researchers.

Advertisement

Ultimately, Walker’s success in implementing his pro-business, anti-union policies provided a model for right-wing politicians at both the state and national levels.

“Wisconsin was sort of the testing ground for what the EPA is now doing,” Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, told ThinkProgress. “It literally feels like everything that’s going on in the Trump administration right now is what we’ve been living through for seven years.”

Wisconsin was not always known for having such a pro-industry environmental agency. Prior to Stepp taking over as DNR secretary in 2011, the agency was viewed as one of the best of its kind in the country, according to Schumann.

“The DNR was ahead of most of other states. It wasn’t that long ago that states were coming to us to see how we were doing things,” said Schumann.

But priorities quickly changed under Stepp, who, prior to running the DNR, served one term in the Wisconsin Senate from 2003 to 2007 where she sought to weaken the state’s environmental laws. Before that, she owned a home-building business.

EPA Region 5 Administrator Cathy Stepp speaks to staffers in the agency's Chicago office on January 11, 2018. CREDIT: EPA
EPA Region 5 Administrator Cathy Stepp speaks to staffers in the agency's Chicago office on January 11, 2018. CREDIT: EPA

In November 2010, the DNR’s main climate change webpage contained detailed information about climate trends, forecasted impacts of climate change, and state programs aimed at addressing the problem. The page also acknowledged that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most renowned group of scientists working on climate change, stated that it is very likely — more than 95 percent probability — that human activity is responsible for rising temperatures.

With Walker as governor, the page was scrubbed to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. “As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change,” the DNR webpage now says. “The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Stepp took pride in bringing private-sector principles — holding discussions with polluters instead of assessing financial penalties, for instance — to the state environmental agency. Industry reportedly viewed the Wisconsin DNR as a “safe space” where they could seek advice that helped them comply with regulations and avoid environmental violations.

The department of natural resources declined to respond to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment on its operations.

Environmental protection becomes an afterthought

In 2016, the Obama EPA threatened to withdraw Wisconsin’s authority to enforce federal water pollution laws due to complaints about contamination from dairy farms, industry, and wastewater treatment.

Lax environmental enforcement drove lawmakers’ concerns that the state could return to the polluted conditions that existed before enactment of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. A report released in 2016 and prepared by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found that Wisconsin’s water quality regulators failed to follow their own policies on enforcement against polluters more than 94 percent of the time over the previous decade.

“The DNR can no longer hide behind the implication that facilities are just doing a better job of complying with their permits,” Jimmy Parra, a Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney, told The Journal Times. “The reality is that DNR isn’t inspecting facilities as it should be and isn’t taking enforcement action in accordance with its own policy.”

Upon her departure for the EPA, Stepp was replaced by Daniel Meyer as secretary of the DNR. Like Stepp, Meyer is a former Republican state lawmaker, and spent 12 years in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Meyer’s voting record earned him an approval rating of under 37 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. But the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation said his grasp of how environmental protection improves hunting and fishing may make him an improvement over Stepp.

In one of the DNR’s first important decisions with Meyer at the helm, the agency granted air permits last month to Foxconn Technology Group’s planned manufacturing facility in Racine County. Emissions from the controversial plant are expected to rank among the highest in southeastern Wisconsin for pollutants that create smog, or ozone pollution.

“I’m outraged that Gov. Walker’s administration shoved through these permits despite valid objections from concerned residents,” state Rep. Dana Wachs (D), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, said in a statement last month.

Former Wisconsin DNR employees go rogue

After Stepp took over as head of the DNR, morale gradually began to worsen. The agency lost many talented employees — some were laid off due to budget cuts and others took early retirement because they did not want to work at an agency that devalued environmental enforcement.

An environmental agency that no longer prioritized science also meant many DNR scientists lost their jobs. In 2015, the Republican-controlled legislature voted to adopt Walker’s plan to eliminate half of the DNR’s senior science staff as part of an overall reduction of 80 positions at the agency.

In response to Walker’s attack on the DNR, former agency employees started a new group in early 2017 to fight back. The group, Wisconsin’s Green Fire, wants to restore the state’s “proud tradition of dedicated stewardship of its land, waters, and wildlife,” which have been “severely compromised” under the Walker administration.

Named after a biographical film about famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, the group’s goal is to educate state officials and the public in order to fill the void created in recent years by a Republican-led legislature and DNR administrators. Members of the group plan to testify at hearings, speak to civic groups, give media interviews, and continue the public information work they did during their careers at the agency.

“It’s a perfect example of how people were so demoralized, they jumped ship on the DNR and ended up starting this independent group to try to fill in some gaps that have been left by the DNR,” Schumann said.

Terry Daulton, a former biologist and researcher at the DNR, told the Green Bay Press Gazette that she hopes Wisconsin Green Fire will quickly eliminate its reason for existing by helping the agency reclaim its duties to the public.

But the damage caused by Walker and Stepp won’t be easily repaired. As the Press Gazette reported, Wisconsin state Rep. Nick Milroy (D) estimated it will take at least 20 years to rebuild the DNR to what it was 10 years ago.