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DNR Sec. Stepp: Judge Sending 'Mixed Signals' in Farm Ruling
Wisconsin Ag Connection - 11/04/2014

The leader of the state's natural resources department says she was glad to see Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey Boldt rule in favor of a Kewaunee County dairy farm last week which has been planning to expand its operation for the past two years. But Cathy Stepp adds she was not sure why the judge also slammed her agency in his judicial comments by stating 'massive regulatory failure' led to groundwater contamination in the region. Speaking at a citizens' forum in Marshfield on Monday, the DNR secretary said Kinnard Farms scored a victory in Wednesday's ruling when Judge Boldt validated the DNR's water discharge permit, as long as they require the farm to install at least six monitoring wells. Environmental groups have been contesting the farm's expansion efforts in court since the permit was first issued in 2012.

"Ultimately we are glad Judge Boldt upheld the permit that we (DNR) issued," Stepp told Wisconsin Ag Connection. "But his 'editorializing' of our department came as a surprise to me. We have worked with him on farm issues before and usually find him to be very fair. I did not expect his comments that question our authority when it comes regulating groundwater contamination."

In his ruling, Judge Boldt said 'the proliferation of contaminated wells represents a massive regulatory failure to protect groundwater in the town of Lincoln' and that the DNR 'needs to utilize its clear regulatory authority to require groundwater monitoring to enhance its ability to prevent further groundwater contamination.' Stepp says comments like these send a mixed message to citizens who do not understand the science-based research the department uses to evaluate permit applications.

"For people who do not know about agriculture, these comments present an opportunity for misinformation and confusion to take place," she said. "The purpose of our department is to enforce the rules on the books and offer technical support. We are not the policy makers."

The judge also ordered the agency to cap the number of cows allowed on concentrated animal feeding operations, but did not specify a specific number.

Meanwhile, the DNR chief also talked about her goals for the next four years if Governor Walker is re-elected on Tuesday. She praised her staff's efforts in re-organizing the department since she took office. A former business owner herself, Stepp said she has been working with department heads for the past three and a half years to make the DNR more 'customer-friendly' when working with the public, while attempting to be less intimidating.

"I am especially proud of our new Office of Business Support, which helps specific industry sectors, such as agriculture or frac sand mining, in determining how to comply with regulations when they go through permitting processes," she said.

Stepp and her husband owned and operated a building construction company before she entered politics as a state senator for four years.

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