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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1999

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The Green Team

Since 1985, DNR environmental wardens have brought midnight dumpers and other unscrupulous polluters to justice.

Stanley A. Schneider

Table of Contents

As a Wisconsin conservation warden, Randy Falstad used to save fish one by one. As an environmental warden, he saves them by the thousands.

"I really always enjoyed the enforcement work as a field warden," says Falstad, a conservation warden from 1984 to 1991, and an environmental warden since 1991. "But you probably catch someone who takes one or two short walleye, or someone who overbags by a few fish, or a dozen. It really does seem that you can make a bigger difference if you're able to put a stop to the criminal aspect. Some of the cheese factories that we caught dumping whey killed off thousands and thousands of fish."

Environmental wardens keep tabs on illegal wastewater discharges and hazardous waste disposal. © DNR Photo
Environmental wardens keep tabs on illegal wastewater discharges and hazardous waste disposal. © DNR Photo

"Green work" – environmental enforcement – has been an integral part of protecting natural resources for a long time. Since the 1880s merchants were prohibited from discharging garbage, fats, tars and oils to state waters. Records from 1911 indicate wardens issued several citations for polluting Wisconsin's waters with tree bark, offal, tanning wastes and oils. In 1917, legislative intent and state statute specifically protected waters of the state from the diverse pollutants of commerce, surface mining, lumbering and shipping. We continue to rely on this same statute today.

An important addition to the enforcement arsenal was statute 23.79(3), codified in 1977, which gives wardens power to request court-ordered restitution and restoration when citations for alleged environmental violations are issued. This has proven to be a rapid, effective method to order environment clean-ups.

In the early 1970s, the Department of Natural Resources formed an Office of Compliance to assist in enforcing laws limiting the kinds and quantities of wastes piped into lakes and rivers. This office effectively dealt with civil violations of pollution laws, but by the early 1980s staff needed law enforcement expertise to build cases for alleged intentional criminal violations.

The Bureau of Law Enforcement received approval to hire two full-time criminal investigators in 1985. Before the two started, only one pollution case had been prosecuted criminally. The investigators, who were also conservation wardens, were stationed in southern Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area, though their responsibilities ranged statewide.

The new "environmental wardens" set a tough standard for enforcing pollution laws. Additional environmental wardens were hired in Green Bay in 1990, in Wausau (1991) and Eau Claire (1993). The present-day "Green Team" consists of six field investigators and the unit's administrator.

Cases come from several sources. Some are referred by DNR staff who regulate discharges, some from disgruntled past and present employees or neighboring concerned citizens; still others come from community health, fire and police departments. As the team becomes better known, the caseload is growing. The Green Team averages 75-100 investigations per year.

The nature of the work has changed in the team's short 15-year history. Initially, 70-75 percent of the cases were alleged illegal disposal of hazardous waste – so-called "midnight dumping." The remaining 25-30 percent were water pollution cases, alleging illegal discharges without a permit. Today, about 60 percent of Green Team cases investigate hazardous waste disposal, 25 percent check out air and asbestos concerns and 15 percent track wastewater issues.

But even that breakdown varies somewhat by region. Falstad has seen a growing shift in the kinds of cases he pursues as enforcement actions deter environmental crimes in some areas while changes in state law spur activity in others. For example, when he started working as an environmental warden in Wausau, he investigated a lot of wastewater cases that often involved cheesemakers who had improperly disposed of whey and other materials in their processes. "We've really got that under control," he says. "There have been enough cases made so businesses know there's a consequence, and they're learning from their mistakes."

Now, he's spending more time investigating another kind of water pollution – storm water violations – as a result of a recent state law requiring people to get a permit and install erosion controls if they disturb five or more acres. Some property owners are not getting the permits, cutting corners, or not implementing or monitoring erosion control measures at all. That failure ૻ intentional or not – can have tremendous environmental consequences: DNR studies have shown that a single acre under construction can send 30 tons of soil into Wisconsin waters a year, harming fish spawning and feeding habitats and triggering algal blooms.

The task of protecting Wisconsin's environment is a monumental one. © DNR Photo
The task of protecting Wisconsin's environment is a monumental one. © DNR Photo

Environmental violations get more sophisticated over time and are much more secretive in nature. Many involve falsifying records as wastes are transported or discharged. We rarely see the classic midnight dumping case anymore – like the one Falstad recalls in which an environmental consultant was falsely informing companies that he was properly disposing of their hazardous waste at an approved landfill. In fact he was taking the barrels to a salvage yard.

Now we're more likely to see pipes sticking out the side of a building, pipes being buried and direct discharge in a secluded location. We also investigate many cases of illegal removal and disposal of asbestos, and surreptitious types of wastewater discharges – firms that dump their wastes down floor drains, falsify their wastewater records or exceed their permits.

In these white-collar crimes in which the "victim" is often the environment, our investigators often deal with company owners and defendants who may be leading citizens in their communities. We see people from all walks of life, from men and women in the boardroom to a person who lived in a chicken coop!

Investigating environmental crimes is complex, demanding work that requires meticulous follow-through on leads and extremely good reporting skills. Public relation skills are a premium. The investigators are among the most highly trained conservation wardens in the department.

The careful work pays off. Many crimes are deterred and our environmental investigations result in 15-20 criminal or civil referrals each year to the Department of Justice for action. Court settlements annually bring in $500,000 or more in fines and forfeitures that go into the state's school fund. Violators may pay for restoration and cleanup, or do jail time when warranted. In 1997, our biggest year for settling criminal cases, convicted polluters paid more than $2 million in fines into the school fund.

Our work is coupled with DNR efforts to advise companies on how to prevent pollution and design manufacturing systems to minimize or avoid regulation. The two strategies of a helping hand and vigilant enforcement help companies stay on track to include the environment and public welfare in their bottom line.

Stanley A. Schneider administers the Environmental Criminal Investigation Unit for DNR's Bureau of Law Enforcement.

To learn more, visit the wardens' pages on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' website.