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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

One goal of environmental regulatory reform is to cut permit requirements on small businesses and create a small business ombudsman position in DNR to help smaller firms determine what environmental regulations they have to meet. © Robert Queen
One goal of environmental regulatory reform is to cut permit requirements on small businesses and create a small business ombudsman position in DNR to help smaller firms determine what environmental regulations they have to meet.
© Robert Queen

February 2004

Homegrown recovery

Steps to restore a slumping economy need to sustain our natural assets as we expand business opportunity and create new jobs.

David L. Sperling

The strength of jobs and a clean environment combined
Changes already underway | Cooperative work with other agencies

As the U.S. economy shows signs of slowly pulling out of a sustained four-year sag, Wisconsin businesses and communities naturally want to be poised in a good position to recover. We want quality jobs for our skilled workers, educated children who can adapt to a changing job market, and a wholesome place where families and communities continue to prosper. Making it easier for companies to do business in Wisconsin can help create new jobs that will sustain our economy.

We also need to attract new kinds of businesses. The hard-working people of Wisconsin are accustomed to a homegrown economy based on the resources we either had or could raise as crops. Lead mining and timber production succeeded by extracting natural resources and exporting them. Papermaking and agriculture showed we could sustain trees, water, and soil and still produce quality products. Unfortunately the global marketing of paper and farming commodities wrested away our ability to control the price of the commodities we raise.

Manufacturing demonstrated other ways to succeed. We did not need to produce all the raw materials for products as long as we knew how to use them. Skilled labor in southeastern Wisconsin became famous for its foundries and machinists who still make most of the country's small engines. Our success as a tourism (a $12 billion industry in our state in 2002) destination shows we adapt and develop skills to strengthen job opportunities in a service economy. Building a more diverse base of service and technology jobs remains an important challenge. In the interim, making it easier for our existing businesses to stay in business and grow has the front-and-center attention of the governor, lawmakers, regulators, municipal officials and business groups.

Among the mixture of tactics aimed at economic development and employment incentives, legislators are vigorously developing proposals to streamline government regulations. And environmental and sporting interests have been just as vigorous in voicing that Wisconsin need not roll back environmental protection in the name of economic progress.

"It's always worth examining ways to do work more efficiently," says DNR Secretary Scott Hassett. "We will continue looking for ways to improve regulations and we'll seek those legislative fixes that can make it easier to do business without harming the environment. Clean water, clean air, quality spaces and a healthy quality of life will continue to be our greatest strength in attracting businesses. We can improve how we enforce regulations without harming our environment. That can and must be our benchmark for successful change."

The strength of jobs and a clean environment combined

"Regulatory reform doesn't have to become a tired debate over economic growth vs. environmental protection," said John Imes of Wisconsin Environmental Initiative. We need not ignite another 'green war' that will hurt our ability to achieve both the healthy business climate and environmental quality every Wisconsinite deserves."

The governor's Grow Wisconsin Initiative continues that theme setting a direction to keep environmental standards high and protect quality of life while still fostering a competitive business climate. We can invest in people and make government responsive without sacrificing shared values, Gov. Doyle stated. Several of the mainstays of our economy – forest products, tourism and agriculture – depend on clean water, he noted.

Several studies bolster that notion. For a decade or more, The Green and Gold Report from the Institute for Southern Studies has ranked states on their environmental and economic standings. Wisconsin ranked 12th and 11th respectively in the latest report. The report concluded: "The states that do the most to protect their natural resources also wind up with the strongest economies and the best jobs for their citizens."

A recent White House Report from the Office of Budget and Management studied the costs of regulations and economic benefits. Over a 10-year period regulations cost $37-43 billion to develop yearly, but these laws created $147-231 billion in annual benefits. The Corporation for Enterprise Development, which has issued a report card on economic activity for the past 17 years, gave Wisconsin an "A" rating for performance, which measures aspects of quality of life here, but we have ranked very poorly for having little "entreprenurial energy" to raise venture capital and create new companies.

Jon Udell's 2001 study of The Quality of Business Life for the UW-Madison School of business gauged business executives' perceptions about living here and conducting business in the Badger State. It showed that a quality labor force, worker attitudes, stability and quality of life in the region are all much more important factors in attracting and keeping businesses than any issues relating to governmental regulations.

Changes already underway

New business incentives are important, Hassett said, but we're not waiting for new laws to start improving government services. He pointed to many efforts under way at the Department of Natural Resources and successful partnerships that are proving to be good for business and the economy.

Improved regulations for new sources of air pollution
State air code NR 445 was revised to reduce the regulatory burden for firms that do not emit any hazardous air pollutants or have very few such emissions. The revisions also contain so-called "safe harbor" language to give leeway to diligent firms that subsequently emit minor amounts of hazardous substances.

Reducing permit review time
DNR air engineers have reduced the time that it takes to review operating permits by 50 percent and are committed to timely issuance of all permits by end of 2004. Similarly, permits for new construction that may emit air pollutants are now reviewed within 87 days of the time complete applications are received. This is one of the fastest turnaround times in the nation.

Fastest reviews in the region
The Department of Natural Resources now processes wastewater permits for industries and municipalities faster than any other state in the Upper Midwest region and are among the fastest in the nation.

Timely public water protection permits
In the last six years, the amount of time it takes to issue permits that protect public water has been slashed from 110 days to 34 days.

Shoreland zoning rules being updated
DNR staff and the public are working collectively to revamp the 35-year-old state shoreland regulations. An advisory committee, public listening sessions and hearings are all providing ample opportunity for diverse interests and public opinion to shape shoreland zoning and amend state laws. See our October 2003 story, Life on the edge.

Similar efforts are underway to update and improve other waterfront standards for piers, structures and land grading along waterways.

Permit primer for small businesses
This guide for small businesses helps owners determine what environmental requirements they need to meet, what permits are needed and how to apply for them.

Federal award for excellence in waste permitting program
DNR was lauded for its work in permitting and licensing hazardous waste facilities. DNR and state businesses more than met national goals to have controls in place by 2005 to prevent dangerous releases to air, soil and groundwater. Wisconsin is one of only 11 states and territories to reach 100 percent compliance.

Burning alternate fuels
Revisions to NR Code 428 are designed to give firms flexibility in meeting air emission limits if they are burning unusual fuels like methane recovered from landfill gas or gas from manure digesters to produce heat and electricity.

Voluntary registry for reducing greenhouse gases
Companies and governmental agencies can selfmonitor, record and report air emissions in a database that will be published on a website. The voluntary program provides a one-stop shop for firms that are trading/selling emissions (like ozone offsets in southeastern Wisconsin). Through the website, these firms receive public recognition for reducing pollutants.

School bus retrofits
A program in southeastern Wisconsin retrofits diesel school buses to reduce VOC, nitrogen oxide, particle, toxic and carbon monoxide emissions. When fully implemented, this incentive program will reduce regulations on transportation companies and municipalities that operate school bus systems.

Quick review of proposed large livestock operations
Wisconsin continues its streak of reviewing more than 90 percent of permit applications for large feedlots (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) within six months or less. While increasing efficiency, permits set the standards for ensuring that millions of gallons of manure and process wastewater are properly stored and applied to land in an environmentally responsible manner.

Recognizing environmental leadership
An award program for hot mix asphalt plants encourages these businesses to be good neighbors by going beyond state requirements to contain pollution emissions, noise and odor on their sites. Thirty-four Wisconsin plants have earned this award which serves as a model for other kinds of businesses.

Similarly scrap dealers can earn awards for annual inspections to contain waste oil, gasoline, solvents, prohibit open burning, remove refrigerants from auto air conditioners and conducting annual environmental audits. More than half of Wisconsin's scrap dealers and auto dismantling yards have joined this program.

Pollution prevention among papermakers
A partnership with 25 of Wisconsin's papermaking firms has reduced unwanted byproducts by 65 percent between 1992-2000.

Safe sludge spreading
When wastewater is treated to remove pollutants, the solid residues (sludges) can often be spread and used as fertilizers and soil builders. Sludge quantities and applications are monitored to ensure the nutrient-rich residues stay in the soil and quantities spread on any one parcel are limited to minimize runoff or groundwater contamination.

Currently more than 98 percent of Wisconsin communities operating wastewater treatment plants have found beneficial uses for these nutrient-rich sludges. Sludges from food processors including vegetable canners can also be spread or sprayed as soil conditioners. Potato processors, dairies and meat processors also have active programs with community farmers to landspread and incorporate organic wastes to build up soil. Paper mills also landspread sludges for fertilizers and soil conditioners. Sludge spreading is a win-win program that saves millions of dollars in disposal costs at approximately 30,000 approved sites in Wisconsin.

Mercury reduction
One residue that communities, businesses and DNR collectively aim to reduce in sludges is mercury. A DNR partnership with 18 of Wisconsin's largest cities focuses on collecting mercury to keep it from becoming an expensive waste from businesses, hospitals, dental practices, schools, heating and AC contractors, dairy farms, scrap yards and households. Community programs collected and recycled more than 13,000 pounds of elemental mercury to date, the largest such collection program in the nation. Further, through education, they are permanently replacing items like thermostats, switches and thermometers that formerly contained mercury.

Cooperative environmental assistance
This DNR service was developed to work with businesses whose operations have a complex mix of air, water and waste emissions. To find better ways of working with these businesses and to better understand their needs, some DNR employees are designated as "sector specialists" who learn the environmental requirements a given kind of business needs to meet. That understanding is key to resolving regulatory issues, building more flexibility into meeting environmental rules, and finding collective solutions to meet requirements more economically. DNR business sector specialists are at work now with papermakers, printers, dry cleaning firms, asphalt plants, fish and bait farms, auto repair shops and scrap dealers, energy producers, the wood products industry, chemical producers, and the construction/building demolition business. In return the firms agree to more than meet environmental requirements by preventing pollution, minimizing waste, and conserving water. One electrical utility now recovers ash from its landfills to use as supplemental fuel.

EMS systems
Much as accountants produce a balance statement as money constantly flows into and out of a business, Environmental Management Systems (EMS) can track a company's performance as resources flow into a business, and products and waste streams leave. The EMS challenge asks questions about how to expand business and cut costs while still doing right by the environment, the neighborhood and the community. EMS systems answer questions about: how to squeeze new products out of byproducts, how to minimize costs for waste disposal, how to save energy, and how to minimize costs of meeting environmental requirements. Better yet, EMS managers challenge their companies to cut wastes to avoid the need to meet environmental requirements thereby improving their performance and their competitive position.

The EMS idea is slowly growing. Two years ago only a handful of Wisconsin companies had formal environmental management systems. Now 80 firms have them in place. As the number of firms increases and their performance shows the businesses can consistently meet environmental requirements, then the nature of overseeing environmental compliance changes.

Cooperative work with other agencies

Complex business proposals often involve judgments from several state agencies. Streamlining those interagency decisions can also save business substantial time and expense. The Department of Natural Resources has signed Memorandums of Understanding with three key state agencies – the Department of Transportation; the Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection; and the Public Service Commission (PSC) to cut delays and coordinate as business permits are considered and reviewed.

For instance, the agreement with the PSC now sets the process for reviewing proposed expansions and siting of power plants and power transmission lines.

Utility companies apply to both the PSC and DNR for permits to build and operate power plants. Historically, the two agencies cooperated on the environmental analysis, but there was no formal process to coordinate the permit reviews. The PSC assessed the need for new plants, the service areas and locations. DNR typically reviewed wetland and waterway permits in addition to assessing proposed air emissions, and plans for managing wastewater and solid wastes. Sometimes PSC would determine that the best site for a new power plant or an expansion was on land that was not permissible under environmental laws. This forced applicants to go back to PSC seeking modifications to plans before construction even began. Since September 2003, DNR and PSC agreements coordinate their environmental reviews on the same time schedule. The agreement also sets a state policy on transmission lines to include the possibility of using recreational corridors in certain circumstances.

"We are looking for areas where we can trim review times and duplication," says DNR's Hassett. "Yet we're still vigilant about maintaining environmental protections. It's vital to create jobs here and to be prepared to act when job opportunities are available. Those opportunities can be quickly explored without sacrificing natural resources, which are just as important to our quality of life. Quality resources, both natural and human, are the economic fabric and base of our state economy."

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.